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This Fashion Label Is Transforming Its Garment Workers’s Quality of Life

Determined to set a new standard for clothing manufacturing on a global scale, behno creates ready-to-wear and handbags with a purpose.

Part of behno’s Sisiter Bags collection, the Hannah tote includes fasteners for other accessories.

New York–based clothing and handbag label behno was born from a desire to improve the way the fashion industry approaches manufacturing. Shivam Punjya, its founder and creative director, established the company to champion both top-tier craftsmanship and India’s garment workers—the majority of whom are women and can make less than a dollar a day. To that end, the brand laid out its philosophy in “The behno Standard,” a set of six operating tenets dedicated to advancing the livelihood of its artisans. At its factories, each female colleague is addressed by the surname behn (“sister” in Hindi), symbolizing the sisterhood of empowered employees the brand strives to create. behno’s aesthetic, driven by chief designer Ashley Austin, is one of pared-down elegance: Strong silhouettes, elegant lines, and purist forms highlight each carefully made object. From slick handbags to standout separates, each piece is at once beautiful and timeless. Surface talked to Punjya about the origins of his fashion brand, and how his desire to transform the industry is manifested through design.

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How did behno come about?
I founded behno in 2014 to marry manufacturing ethics and luxury design. It emerged from my academic experiences—after studying political economics and global poverty and working for an education advocacy nonprofit based in India, I became intrigued by global health and social entrepreneurship. While doing thesis research [on women’s health in India] for my master’s program, I learned about textile workers, their families, and the disparity that existed between what they were producing and what they were earning. I also gained insight into the global perception of the “Made in India” label, which has been either negatively received or quickly dismissed. This, coupled with the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh [which killed more than 1,100 garment factory employees], shook up my world. I was compelled to challenge the common perception of ethical fashion from different markets by starting a company that employs an ethical manufacturing ideology while ensuring the front-end label, behno, maintains a strong design sensibility. 

The Ina crossbody bucket bag in ecru and black.
The Sister Set in red includes the Hannah tote, Lily pouch, and Amanda bag.
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Tell us about behno’s core values. What is the driving force behind its work?

Our core values are threefold: Creating luxurious and directional pieces, working with our factories to incrementally implement The behno Standard,’ and elevating the work of our artisan partners. We’re inspired by the makers of our pieces and realize how seldom we include them in the conversation about a product’s lifecycle. Highlighting their work through the brand platform is what drives our team.

What does good design mean to you?

Beautiful design evokes an appreciation—and love, really— for the craft, making, and aesthetic of a product while not compromising its sensibility or practicality. Good design forges a relationship you didn’t know you could have with a material object.

What is behno working on now?

We love creating modern applications of ancient techniques, which falls under our design pillars of [utilizing] old world craftsmanship for new world needs, and creating pieces that stay with you over time. We can’t wait to reveal our new resort collection: a line of handmade handbags designed using deluxe embroidery techniques. We’ve also recently pivoted into accessories, which have become a strong focus for the brand.

The Tara card-holder in black is made of smooth-grain leather and features behno’s signature wave detail.
A roomier version of the Ina handbag.
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