Monisha Raja has solved one of life's perpetual problems: finding the perfect vegan shoe. The New York City-based entrepreneur and founder of fashion brand LOVE IS MIGHTY collaborates with women artisans in her native India to create stylish and original leather-free footwear and accessories that meld function and fashion for city, country, and the beach. The Calcutta-born, Kerala-raised, Big Apple-dwelling entrepreneur spoke to Swell! about her fascinating life and her formula for success.
Give us a snapshot of your formative years. What are some of your favorite childhood memories?
I am originally from Kerala, born in Calcutta and raised all over the country. My father was an army officer and we moved constantly. It was quite a nomadic life. My parents finally settled in Pune, a few hours from Mumbai. I stayed there until I moved to New York in 1990.
My fond memories: playing in the snow in Kashmir, living in Yol, a small Himalayan town and frequent visits with my family to see His Holiness The Dalai Lama in nearby Dharamsala. I loved climbing trees with my brother, staying up past midnight to watch Star Trek and BBC’s Top Of The Pops. We had just one channel in India in the '70s but could tune into some foreign shows via satellite.
What's your vegan story?
I am vegan and have been for the past 17 years. I grew up in India eating meat, dairy, and everything else. I ate whatever was put in front of me. My parents had a poultry farm when I was 15 and that’s when I was exposed first-hand to the suffering inflicted by factory farming. I used to help vaccinate the little chicks and I saw them growing up. When it was time, they were taken away by buyers with their legs tied up. It was painful to watch. I gave up eating chicken. I also had a pet pig that disappeared one day after I came back from school. No one mentioned anything about it but I suspected what had happened. I became vegetarian a year after I moved to New York in the early '90s. It took a few more years to go completely vegan. Dating a vegan chef made it easy.
You're something of a renaissance woman: yoga teacher, painter, designer, and progressive entrepreneur. What's your secret to balancing all of your passions and interests?
I don’t really think about it. I do what I love and it takes many forms. I came to realize a while back that if I didn’t find a channel for all of my creative energies, I’d be ill. I spent years studying and teaching yoga and that left me feeling restricted and monastic, I then focused on my painting fully and exhibited but the process was isolating, I continued my career in fashion design and illustration but that alone was unfulfilling. Now that I do them all, I’m happy and they keep me moving forward.
You founded LOVE IS MIGHTY in 2011; how has your brand has evolved throughout the past five years?
I think my own understanding of what it is has grown and I am evolving with it. I am learning everyday what it means to keep the mission of uplifting rural artisans and caring for animals unadulterated while presenting the world with a viable business that offers beautiful functional products.
Not having had a business background, it doesn’t come easy and I’m getting better at it. The evolution of the brand lies in the seamlessness of its design ethos and social responsibility. The manufacturing aspect is what I’m focused on now and building relationships with reliable and trustworthy factories. Not a small task.
I began working on the brand in 2010. Back then, no one was talking about "sustainability" and now it seems to be all we are talking about. I feel that the fashion climate is more receptive to a brand like mine and the awareness is growing.
Your shoes, boots, and accessories are so beautiful to look at. What is your approach to design?
I like classic shapes and I’m a stickler for detail. The textiles and handwork of the artisans is what inspires me a great deal. I welcome the challenge to translate ancient craft. I’m inspired by what I see during my travels and by the work of the artisans. I used to have specific designs in mind before meeting the craftspeople. At times I approach the artisans with specific designs in mind but they rarely see the light of day. What does materialize as a result is often far more beautiful than the original idea, so it is a true confluence of worlds and minds. I’m learning to let go and allow the fluidity of this process.
What is your favorite part of the creative process?
Traveling and working with the artisans and developing product. I get to journey into remote off-the-grid regions, witness rare and dying crafts, meet indigenous tribes, and learn about their traditions and lifestyles. I like the challenge of taking something traditional and redesigning it for a contemporary global market.
Part of LOVE IS MIGHTY's mission is to support indigenous communities in India whose unique handicrafts are at risk of being lost to industrialization and globalization. How have you seen your collaborations benefit local women and their communities?
Most of the growth India is experiencing as a nation is urban. Rural poverty still remains rampant. I work with populations of rural tribal artisans who are considered adivasis or of low caste. There is a stigma attached to working in leather as it involves an animal’s carcass. Providing these artisans with non-animal materials is a way to steer them out of this societal bondage.
The women weavers I work with who weave recycled plastic for me have household responsibilities and tend to their families. I work with a non-profit organization that provides them with looms and they weave in their free time at home and earn a living wage. This encourages them to stay with their craft in villages and not seek construction work in cities, where they invariably end up in urban slums.
LOVE IS MIGHTY is still in its initial phase of growth and the number of women artisans I work with has stayed steady. As the company expands, I look forward to engaging more artisans.
You have described yourself as being "passionate about human rights." Was there a pivotal experience that ignited this passion?
I don’t think there was any one specific incident. Living in India, it is hard to avoid the abject poverty one is confronted by constantly. The huge discrepancy between the rich and the poor is apparent. Also, the practice of caste system is deeply ingrained in the Indian society and is a human rights violation.
Building a business that does not perpetuate the exploitation of people, planet and animals, I hope, will be the norm in the near future and not an anomaly.
What are some of your favorite travel destinations?
Beaches in Costa Rica, The Bahamas, and South India. The ocean is like a giant transformer that I plug into. For culture and art I love living in New York City. It seems that the world congregates there. London, Rome, and Fes offer rich history and art and I can’t wait to get back to them soon. I’m drawn to nomadic cultures. India is an obvious choice for me as the people, traditions, and culture varies so extensively from state to state and I can blend in with the locals. I’m attracted to the temples in India. I’ll seek them out wherever I am.
What do you pack when you travel?
I’m not a fussy traveler. I envy my younger days. I’d travel with just a small backpack. Now that I have a business and most of my traveling revolves around it, I’m on the road with more than I’d really like--shoe samples, shoe lasts, sketchbooks and supplies. This can weigh me down. Good luggage is a must for me.
I make sure to get to the beach no matter how busy I am. I don’t ever travel without my bikini, sneakers, Shahana (my versatile tribal sandals), and raw coconut oil. Everything else is negotiable.
Describe your approach to personal style.
I think living in multiple worlds reflects what I wear. I’m on the beach in India right now, wearing a black summer dress by Chloe with my blue vintage sadhu beads I got from a wandering sage in North India and barefoot. The rule for me is simple--no matter what I wear, I want to feel good in it. If you feel good, you look good!
Take us on a food tour of your day. What's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
I don’t find breakfast much fun and I’m rarely hungry before 11am so I’ll have some fruit or a vegetable juice. When in New York, lunch is around noon and I’ll usually have quinoa with sautéed or steamed veggies and miso-tahini sauce. I swear by avocadoes and they’re a staple for lunch or dinner. Dinner could be soba noodle soup or rice with lentils and steamed greens. It keeps changing and unfortunately, I don’t get to cook as much as I’d like to but I’m lucky to live in places that have so many vegan options.
When I’m in India, I never tire of South Indian rice crepes and rice cakes with lentils and coconut chutney. I make sure to have about three fresh young coconuts daily.
Do you plan to grow LOVE IS MIGHTY into something bigger? What's next for your brand?
Absolutely. When I founded the brand I knew that the scope for its growth is immense but I wasn’t sure how I could accomplish this on my own. I am inviting partnerships and funding to help take it to the next level. To further awareness about LOVE IS MIGHTY’s mission, I will be presenting my work at The U.N. in mid March. I will continue to speak about sustainable fashion and brand building to design students at schools such as Parsons School of Design and FIT, and speak at business schools on building new business models that support communities and the environment. It's an exciting time ahead.
Monisha never travels without packing a pair of LOVE IS MIGHTY Shahana sandals. Get a pair for yourself here.
"I began working on the brand in 2010. Back then, no one was talking about "sustainability" and now it seems to be all we are talking about. I feel that the fashion climate is more receptive to a brand like mine and the awareness is growing."
Boots 'n' All
Quality and style are the hallmarks of every pair of LOVE IS MIGHTY boots, sandals, and shoes.
"Building a business that does not perpetuate the exploitation of people, planet and animals, I hope, will be the norm in the near future and not an anomaly."
One of a Kind
Some of the beautiful accessories LOVE IS MIGHTY produces are truly one of a kind. These clutches were created from vintage hand-stitched fabrics.
"I don’t ever travel without my bikini, sneakers, Shahana (my versatile tribal sandals), and raw coconut oil. Everything else is negotiable."