An interview with Zein Ahmed, the founder of eco-friendly fashion house Guru New York
There is nothing better than the pleasure of owning a well-made garment that possesses timeless design. New York based brand Guru provides exactly that. Founded in New York City in May 2008, Guru produces beautiful apparel, footwear and formerly, jewellery. It was founded by Zein Ahmed, a New York resident, and has achieved acclaim as an eco-friendly label. Guru has been featured in O – The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, Vogue, Verandah Magazine and The New York Times as well as being highlighted on MSNBC and the CBS Morning News.
The core concept of Guru is slow fashion. They keep ethical purchasing and production practices at the very heart of what they do. From their selection of raw materials (linen for apparel) to the reduction of plastics in their production processes to equitable wages paid to their workers, Guru is going the extra mile in taking the environmental and social harm out of fashion. Their pieces are timeless, with garments designed on classic silhouettes and never based on fleeting current trends. Guru produces one line a year to add to their existing designs and all of their pieces are available to order online.
Linen is primarily used for all Guru apparel due to the innumerable benefits of the textile. Linen, a flax fabric, is a biodegradable textile that has many health benefits and is also an excellent filter that protects against chemical exposure, noise and dust. Linen clothing reduces solar gamma radiation by almost half, thereby protecting those who wear it. It is also said to heighten positive emotions, possesses rare bacteriological properties and is resistant to fungus. Read more about the benefits of linen here.
Almost all of the textiles are pre-shrunk and washed, so that the garments do not need to be dry cleaned. They can be hand or machine washed. This was an important consideration for Zein because, in her experience, most linen clothing had dry clean only instructions. This was not acceptable to her because dry cleaning is not very earth friendly or price efficient.
Guru has a small production unit where Christians form a major part of their labour force. This religious group is one of the two largest non-muslin religious minorities living in Pakistan and are heavily marginalised. Unlike the norm, they are paid per unit produced and not on a meagre daily rate of a few dollars. Zein ensures that her workers are paid well over the standard rates of factory workers and have good working conditions, never hiring tailors under the age of 18. During the production process, there is a focus on limiting the use of non-biodegradables such as plastic bags. Guru uses one recycled plastic bag, from the first to the final stage of production, whereas most factories use five to seven plastic bags per item.
We love Guru because they take their responsibility as a business seriously. Their focus on craftsmanship, innovation and quality is admirable as are their efforts to support marginalised communities with fair wages and good working conditions. We were so pleased to be able to interview Zein Ahmed and find out how it all began and what inspires her.
Where did it all begin?
You know that saying, when you are on the right path, the universe conspires to make it happen for you. It felt like the universe really came together with love and support. Friends and complete strangers supported me and showed up for me as I could not have imagined. We did the impossible with very little money but we did it.
In my 300 sq foot apartment in Chelsea. I remember I had printed out designs and idea maps, taping them to every inch of the wall. My housemate developed our logo and website, a friend modelled for the photoshoot in my sister’s apartment where we used giant white poster boards as the backdrop. Two dear friends hosted, what turned out to be, very successful trunk shows at their homes in Brooklyn. I was still working full time at my job. Those days I was working perhaps 20 hours additional a day on Guru. I then started setting up a booth at weekend designer markets, like the one in Soho and Green Flea on the Upper West Side. I was one of the first few vendors at Brooklyn Flea.
I then started setting up shop at the holiday markets that pop up around New York during the winter and festive season. I had started getting wholesale orders from stores at these weekend events. I also participated in several fund raisers and charities and in the major New York fashion trade shows.
Three years after launching Guru, we were being carried by some top 200 boutiques across the US and some in Europe: Paris, Switzerland, Milan….. This is how I launched Guru, with an initial investment of $3000 and in 3 years we had crossed sales of over $500,000.
That is absolutely amazing! What was your background, did you always see yourself in the fashion industry?
I moved to NYC in 1998. A year or so after, I decided to enrol at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) to study fashion design. In order to support myself through school, I had started to work in restaurants and developed a deep appreciation for food and the restaurant industry. Because of this, I decided to pursue a career in that instead of fashion design. I then attended ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) to train for a career in the culinary arts and restaurant management. I worked and interned for celebrity chefs like Anita Lo at Annisa and Floyd Cardoza of Tabla, both very popular and well respected restaurants in NYC. I had even managed to get two scholarships in the industry, one from the James Beard Foundation and the other from Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.
After a few years of working in the culinary field, I wanted a change. Working in kitchens and restaurants was very rewarding and exciting but it was also very taxing and tiring. This was a tough point in time for me. I had invested almost a decade of my life to pursue a career in food. I spoke to my mother and sought her advice. It was her idea to launch a fashion label based on slow fashion.
Before moving to New York, my sister Maleeka and I had launched a small but successful clothing label in Lahore, Pakistan. We would only work with hand loomed, woven textiles that used all natural vegetable based dyes and were block printed. We sourced these out of remote villages in Pakistan. So I already had a few years of real life experience in starting a fashion label. I had also worked for a few years at several fashion trade shows in NYC’s Jacob Javits Center plus did a few years of retail experience prior to launching Guru.
When I launched Guru, we made hand stitched, all natural leather sandals with intricate metallic thread work. We also hand crafted traditional silver jewelry with an urbane twist. And we designed tunics made from fine European linen which was bought in New York City.
Tell us about these initial products from Guru – the jewelry and sandals that formed part of your initial offering back in 2008.
Guru sandals are sourced from craftsmen who supported a dying cottage industry art, based within Lahore and its surrounding villages. The source is also a pioneer in terms of design, technology and standards, producing the most beautifully-worked, durable, quality products available in Pakistan and in the world today.
Design innovation is drawn regionally from across Pakistan and surrounding cultural influences. All sandals are made of natural, premium quality cowhide. The shoes are naturally processed, no chemicals are involved in their manufacture. The threadwork, or tankas, are hand stitched by women or old men from their homes. Often, they are the sole breadwinners for their families.
My first wholesale order was from Calypso, St Barth who wanted them for all 27 locations. The sandals we made for them sold out within the first 2 weeks. Now our sandals are offered for wholesale only. We made the decision to not carry them on our own website for retail.
Tell us a bit more about your jewelry.
The jewelry house at Guru began as a private bond between my mother and I. It began with her aesthetic passion and her desire to extend this lineage to her family. At first she opened a workshop in her own home, with a single artisan in quest of lost art forms. She then worked with the few remaining master artisans of the region, while at the same time training a second generation in the craft. Our designs are culled from Indian sub continent sculpture, painting, and photographs, the chronicles of kings, and texts from ancient trade routes. We consider our jewelry an art form, a purist celebration of life.
Each piece is handcrafted and provides our jewelry its profound sense of heritage. Guru’s range varies from the Mughal high-art of enameling and vermeil, to stunning work in kundan and semi-precious stone. All items are made in silver and plated in 22 karat gold. Guru brings to you a revival of jewelry from the Indian subcontinent – designed to meet the needs of urbane lifestyles, while retaining the historic integrity and elegance of yesteryears. Guru celebrates the revival of a precious industry. Many of our designs are museum owned. We, however, bring Indian royalty home to our friends.
Our ateliers were located in Multan which, for centuries, served as the center for the decorative arts as well as Sufi philosophy. These two traditions mark our signature style — finesse in workmanship and an ancient sense of luxury.
We decided to discontinue with the jewelry line some 3 years ago, to focus primarily on our clothing line. We had reached over 200 retail locations and the demands of the business grew, so I decided to focus on the clothing. Guru jewelry was carried in some 12 top boutiques across the US.
Why is slow fashion so important to you?
I grew up in Lahore Pakistan, the youngest of five sisters. My parents had instilled an appreciation for healthy and environmentally conscious living in all of us. All the food we ate was organic, all natural and home grown. There was a lot of importance given to what we ate and what we wore. My parents love handicrafts and traditions of the old world… hand woven textiles, vegetable based dyes, block printed textiles. Traditional classics trumped trends and ‘fashion’.
My parents believe in quality over quantity and above all in supporting and promoting the craft traditions of Pakistan. I learnt from them, at an early age, the important role we all need to play in being environmentally conscious… to use natural resources carefully, to be aware of the effect our choices have on the eco systems in this world.
Guru New York is a slow fashion company. We are firm believers of “less is more” and are committed to ensuring social and environmental responsibility in the sourcing, designing and manufacturing of our clothing. Our textiles are bought locally in NYC, from the Garment District. Our manufacturing is done in Lahore, Pakistan.
We assure our customers the highest standards of excellence and ethical purchase. Guru commissions sweatshop-free manufacturing. It supports cottage industries free of child labor. And it is committed to making eco-friendly and organic choices for all its materials and processes used.
What’s next for Guru? Do you have any plans for Southeast Asia?
Currently, I am working on expanding our ecommerce base to Southeast Asia and focusing on promoting the slow fashion movement.
What inspires you?
At the risk of sounding cliché I will say that I am inspired by Nature…..animals, birds, flowers and trees, basically anything that makes me feel good and happy.
At the same time, present-day Pakistan is home to several ancient cultures, including Mehrgarh and the Indus civilization at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Over centuries, this land has absorbed the vital energies of Buddhism, Hinduism, and a mystical Islamic tradition. It has served as a crucible to historic trade routes, and as a majestic center to craft in the region. It is this experience of Pakistan that I bring to New York, with the launch of Guru. My products bear witness to a legacy of artisans and their labor, surviving against all duress.
Thank you so much for talking to us, Zein! Guru tunics are beautiful. They are timeless and perfect in sunny Singapore where linen tunics look chic and effortless. Guru ships to Singapore so check them out at guru-nyc.com.
For more information:
tel: +1 (347) 915-GURU, +1 (347) 915-4878
fax: +1 (646) 349-5484
Images provided by Guru New York.