Ever wondered how Singaporeans are introducing Singapore to the world? Introducing our new digital series, Going Global, which takes you into the lives of Singaporeans who are making waves abroad in the worlds of arts & culture. For this instalment, dentist-turned-designer Nabilah Islam shares her journey to launching her slow fashion label, One Puram.
Nabilah Islam, founder of slow fashion label One Puram, has always been passionate about fashion. Despite holding a full-time job as a dentist, Nabilah made time to deepen her interests—from sketching and sewing to frequently browsing fashion blogs and fabric stores online—which eventually manifested into a label of her own when she relocated to Jakarta in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
Today, Nabilah juggles motherhood and her business, designing sustainable womenswear styles imbued with a fun resort vibe while simultaneously giving back to the environment. Whether it’s the use of TENCEL™ natural fibre, locally-sourced materials or minimalistic packaging made from ocean-bound waste, One Puram inspires people to be conscious shoppers of ethically-made fashion.
Here, Nabilah shares the story behind One Puram, her thoughts on the future of slow fashion and more.
Tell us how One Puram came about.
Since young, I have always loved ‘dressing up’ and despite embarking on a career as a dentist, my passion for fashion remained. In my early days, I found myself sketching designs between patient appointments, browsing online fabric stores, and even starting online courses to learn more about the industry and where I could possibly fit in. I found out about ZERRIN that talks to other small business founders who make their products ethically—with people and the environment in mind—and was truly inspired.
Moving to Indonesia just before the pandemic lockdown in 2020 was a blessing in disguise. Since I was unable to travel back to Singapore as a visiting clinician, I had the chance to really explore my passion, taking sewing classes and making outfits at home. As I contemplated venturing into the fashion business, I felt a very strong responsibility to be mindful of what I was adding to a rather saturated industry. I was well aware of the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013 and of sweatshops that paid pennies and cared even less for their workers and knew that was something I needed to steer clear of. If I couldn’t find a way to produce items that put the well-being of people and the planet foremost, then I couldn’t move forward. Being ‘slow’ in the process and conscious of my impact was essential.
My decision to be environmentally conscious was further cemented when I had to bring up heaps of rubbish during a diving trip and saw shocking amounts of bleached and dead coral around me. Nobody will ever stop shopping; but maybe through education and greater awareness, they will support products made thoughtfully. I decided to create an eco-conscious, slow fashion label that attempts to reduce its impact on our environment while inspiring others to do the same. One Puram means ‘One Village’ and is a name to encourage a sense of community—we are all in this together, fighting for the betterment of our planet that we all share.
How would you define the ethos and mission of One Puram? How do you incorporate sustainability into your brand’s practices?
At One Puram, we are driven to lead the vanguard of sustainable, eco-conscious style by caring for the environment and giving back to the community. Likewise, our mission is to inspire the shift away from fast fashion brands by adopting environmentally friendly processes and incorporating sustainability at every stage possible. My early stages of research revealed how 35% of microplastics polluting the oceans came from synthetic fibre. As such, from there, I began pursuing avenues for using natural fibre to mitigate this. Each piece at One Puram is made from TENCEL™ lyocell fibres, produced by environmentally responsible processes from sustainably sourced natural wood. These fibres are breathable and soft while being durable and biodegradable, ensuring that each piece prioritises comfort and conscious style. Digital printing of apparel is also done with GOTS-certified dyes to reduce chemical usage and impact on the environment.
In a bid to shift from mass production, we use a small workshop that pays workers a living wage and provides a safe environment to work in. They are also audited annually by Elevate and I often do workshop visits myself.
In collaboration with One Tree Planted, two trees are planted for every garment sold to help combat the deforestation of Indonesia’s rainforests. Furthermore, the fabric, packaging materials, and shell buttons are all sourced from within Indonesia to reduce the overall carbon footprint of the brand’s manufacturing process, while supporting the local community and reducing the reliance on mass production. Lastly, the use of ocean-bound reusable Pollastic™ shipping bags from Better Packaging Co. and kraft paper hang tags allows excess waste to be mitigated while the minimalism of the packaging keeps shipping costs globally low and free for Singaporean customers.
Environmental consciousness is not a destination but a never-ending journey of constant research and development. In fact, we are still constantly researching how we can improve existing practices to incorporate eco-consciousness even more.
Related article: 7 Places To Shop For Sustainable Fashion In Singapore
What are some of the key challenges you faced while establishing and growing One Puram?
Running One Puram alone as a one-woman brand certainly comes with a lot of difficulties. More importantly, as a newcomer with no ‘network’, connections, or family to help catapult me into the slow fashion industry arena, I had to have faith that hard work and perseverance will pay off in the end.
So far, ensuring a smooth supply chain from sourcing consistently high quality and custom printed fabric to finding a reliable production workshop has been my key focus, and has always been open to upheaval until we find the right fit. Patience and understanding have been crucial in staying motivated during this process and not giving up whilst facing these issues.
The focus on growth is the next challenge, from showing up to more in-person pop-ups and finding more distribution channels so customers can access One Puram in person to gain a better understanding of our fabric and the fits. This is a work in progress and I’m sure as One Puram continues to grow, new challenges will always arise. Having the belief that I will overcome any challenge and keeping a strong vision of One Puram’s success is vital. In a way, I believe that if I’m not feeling challenged in some way then perhaps, I’m not doing things right.
Could you share some insights into your sourcing and production processes? How do you ensure transparency and ethical practices throughout your supply chain?
The root of One Puram’s sustainable practices lies in sourcing materials that have the least impact on the environment. As mentioned, after rigorous research, we found TENCEL™ lyocell fibres, which are sourced naturally, to be the most viable base material for our garment production. Being certified, I have trust in the authenticity of the fabric produced. I also ensure I see the certificates for GOTS digital dyes used in the printing process of our custom prints.
Ensuring our practices are ethical during the manufacturing process is paramount at One Puram. In the past, we used a family-run workshop in Bali and have recently moved out production to another family-run workshop in Bandung, which pays workers a living wage and extra incentives to earn more. In addition, they are audited annually by Elevate ensuring social and environmental well-being as well as building, electrical, and fire safety at the workshop. I personally do site visits often to the workshop and have a chance to interact with workers there, whether it’s over lunch together or to discuss new collections.
Everything is sourced within Indonesia to be mindful of our carbon footprint. The corozo nut buttons are only available from Panama so we are transparent about shipping those in for use in some designs. I would love to showcase more of the processes behind the scenes on our social media channels moving forward.
Related article: 10 Sustainable Fashion Labels That Deserve Our Attention
Slow fashion often comes with a higher price point compared to fast fashion. How do you communicate the value of your products to consumers and address concerns about affordability?
As a small brand ordering limited quantities of fabric made with certified TENCEL™ fibres and using digital GOTS-certified dyes, as well as small quantities of quality corozo nut or shell buttons, we pay a premium at every step of the process. Because of our mission to be an ethical and sustainable brand, we hope to educate customers about the higher price we pay to ensure fabric and dyes used are not harmful to the environment and that workers were not mistreated in the process.
We need to continue working on creating value for our customers. At the end of the day, we want to encourage conscious consumerism and less impulsive buying habits; we hope people will part with their money for garments they adore and see themselves wearing for many years to come.
In what ways does One Puram prioritise inclusivity and diversity?
One Puram focuses on letting one’s individuality shine through their style. By constantly working towards building inclusive designs and ensuring our messaging caters to various consumers, we strive to allow wearers of our products to feel confident and chic in their own skin. It is a work in progress, but we are constantly experimenting with our ranges to create all-encompassing clothing lines that can suit wearers of different sizes and shapes. We currently create in sizes UK 6-UK 16 and as we understand our customers more and gain feedback, we are able to make improvements with each collection. The beauty of being a small business in the early stages of inception is that we are receptive to change and can make tweaks fairly easily. Each piece by One Puram is designed to flatter through light yet form-fitting lines, while each cut is thoughtfully and artfully planned to highlight different body parts for wearers of various body shapes and sizes with different needs and even insecurities, allowing one’s individuality to shine. Inclusivity also extends to brand marketing, and we actively ensure that our models are of various races and look forward to including more size inclusion in our core campaigns to come.
What steps does your brand take to promote conscious consumerism and encourage customers to make more sustainable fashion choices beyond purchasing your products?
Creating small collections and not following the usual fashion timelines of high fashion or fast fashion means we create less and have less waste. In addition, we don’t push consumers to make impulse purchases by participating in the endless sales we now see, such as Black Friday and Singles Day. We want customers to only buy something they feel they will get repeated use from.
We partner with businesses who share our moral and ethical pillars and we support and follow content creators on social media who have an interest in sustainable and environmental practices. I hope we can lead by example by getting out on the ground more often and participate in more beach/ocean clean-up efforts. We are not perfect and aim to be better.
How do you envision the future of slow fashion, and what role do you believe One Puram will play in shaping the industry?
As more consumers are growing conscious of the environmental impact of their daily practices, I foresee that slow fashion is here to stay, whether that be consumers taking an interest in brands like One Puram or rethinking the incessant urge to buy the latest trends overall.
Slow fashion to me is about producing less and not fuelling an existing problem. It is not always about buying new and I often try to buy secondhand myself, indulging in vintage store buys. With that said, One Puram has to evolve in the future to have circularity and a plan for the end life of the garments. That may be in the form of a buy-back program to recycle old styles into new ones or encourage buyers to pass on their pieces to be used by someone else.
We believe that with our constant effort to improve our processes and ensure each step of the production journey is kept as eco-friendly as possible, One Puram can be an alternative to fast fashion brands that brings people ethically produced pieces. We hope that we can help to shape the industry by inspiring consumers to be mindful of their consumerism.
What are some common misconceptions about slow fashion, and how do you address them when educating consumers about your brand?
The notion that slow fashion isn’t stylish is a misconception—I believe that sustainable, slow, ethical fashion can be stylish, sexy, and aesthetically pleasing. Slow fashion is also seen as being too expensive rather than the understanding that by buying you are investing in a piece thoughtfully made, which positively impacts the people involved in making the garments and that gives back via environmental initiatives.
I often let customers know not to rush to collect multiple slow fashion pieces at once but to think of it as an investment into building an evergreen wardrobe. Furthermore, we often educate consumers on the various ways to further enhance the longevity of their pieces—one of the ways to mitigate this would be repairing any damage to their clothes instead of throwing them out.
What advice do you have for individuals who want to transition into a more sustainable and conscious wardrobe?
Start slow! The key is not to empty your entire wardrobe and replace them with clothes from eco-conscious brands. The focus should be on ensuring a few sturdy closet staples, such as a few high-quality work attires and casual attires that speak to your style and can be worn every season. It is not about completing a collection; it is about gradually building your own wardrobe that only comprises long lasting, high-quality pieces that you can wear through various seasons and for different occasions. As cliché as it sounds, it is all about quality over quantity.
Next, another important aspect of having a sustainable wardrobe is increasing the life of one’s wardrobe. Thoughtful consumption is the key to a sustainable closet, and we can quickly start reducing our fashion footprint by repairing our clothes instead of dumping them out. Transitioning into a more sustainable and conscious wardrobe also involves reducing our waste.
Related article: Why Does Fast Fashion Fall Apart So Quickly?
Can you share any upcoming projects or collaborations that your customers can look forward to?
We are currently working on the next collection which we are aiming to launch in October/November 2023, and will be experimenting with some other fabric content such as TENCEL™-linen blends. Linen has always been a strong summer staple fabric and we have seen a lot of elevated and classy linen looks in resort wear this summer; it inspired us to look into producing some staple wardrobe summer pieces using that. As much as we see prints as timeless and adore them, there may be some solid colour pieces in the next collection, so there’s something for everyone. With every collection, we begin its conception with a new source of inspiration and you can expect another curated offering where we will be focusing on floaty and flattering cuts to better suit a variety of body types.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking to launch their own sustainable fashion brands?
Know why you want to have your own brand, think about what your mission is and how it will serve your end customer. Your passion and motivation have to be greater than any perceived success—monetary, or popularity. It is very rare to be an overnight success so you need to persevere to be in this for the long run while understanding your vision and the customers you want to serve.
Believe in yourself more than anyone else does and will, even if it’s beyond reason, and trust your instincts. Dreams are only dreams until you turn them into reality. Nothing will come easy and you have to have the confidence to make others believe what you truly do. Be authentic, be kind, and learn from everyone you meet. If you’re anything like me, you’ll realise how little you know today but think about what you will know and achieve five to 10 years down the line.
The journey can be lonely, so surround yourself with like-minded and motivated people you can share your thoughts with. Up until now, I’m still doing this on my own, from design and fabric sourcing to photoshoot styling, website, social media, finding distribution channels, and order fulfilment. It can sometimes be overwhelming, so it’s important to outsource some projects as it’s hard to be great at everything. Upwork has been a huge help in times of need. Good luck with your adventure!