Clothing can do more than make you look good, according to Swati Argade. She is the powerhouse behind Bhoomki, the clothing, accessories, and (more increasingly) housewares boutique on Fifth Avenue, and she’s supporting social and environmental causes by curating her shop with consciousness.
Bhoomki (a shortened combination of Sanskrit and Hindi terms meaning “of Mother Earth”) began as Swati’s wholesale clothing line in 2002, and expanded into the shop in late October of 2012. Her love for fashion began as a childhood fascination with textiles, inspired largely by her mother. From very early on, she regarded fabrics with curiosity– where did they come from, and how did they make their way to her?
“I’ve always been very interested in traditional craftsmanship, and I think my mom gave that to me through different avenues,” Swati says. “She had this amazing sari collection, and I would learn the geography of India through her yards and yards of fabric. She would say, ‘Oh, well these were made in Banaras, or these are handwoven cottons from Tamil Nadu in the South.’
“And so I always had this appreciation for the craftsmanship, but I also wanted to find a way to translate the textiles into something that was very wearable.”
Her experimentation with that wearability started in childhood as well, amassing her own fabric collections through trips to India and turning them into clothing with the help of tailors. She says she didn’t get it quite right, however, until a post-grad trip brought her to India for non-fashion reasons. Having recently obtained a film degree from Berkeley, she was traveling through Indian villages in research for a documentary.
“I met these artisans and they started telling me all these stories,” she says. “Their children were having to move to the cities because there weren’t enough markets to support these century-old craft traditions. So I fell in love with those first fabrics in South India, and then I met these great tailors that were part of this fashion school where our family home was, and I brought them back to the states, just the stuff I was wearing. And people started asking, ‘Oh where did you get that?'”
As her designs grew into a clothing line, and that clothing line into a store, Swati’s support of the artisan never wavered.
“All of my work has been about working with artisans and working fair trade. Every collection that I’ve done over the years always focuses on a specific community of artisans. We actually helped revive this silk tradition on the border of Bangladesh. They sent me the sample yardage, and then when I went back to actually produce the orders, they had stopped production. But we brought it back and we created a market for it that season, so that was really exciting.”
“Every month we want to have some kind of artisan spotlight in terms of our design. We do block printing from Gujarat or block printing from Rajasthan, or hand embroidering, called Kantha, from Bengal. Then there are these great Ayurvedic fabrics that have these wonderful properties and we want to do some pajamas with them. So every month we’re really going to be rolling out some kind of work that’s produced not only in India but also in the Philippines, Indonesia, Chile.”
Still, Swati’s support of global creative communities doesn’t exclude the local artisans. Though she often works from a “source globally, produce locally” philosophy, collaborating with a team of designers in small factories in the garment district as well as in Brooklyn, she also utilizes domestic resources.
“Our opening collection was an homage to New York,” she says. “Every aspect of every piece, down to every button, was sourced from a local business. It was very much in support of the garment center, which is endangered by high rents and other businesses encroaching into that area […] And we need it, if you don’t have factories that can produce in small quantities it’s very hard for independent designers to survive.”
Swati is discerning when it comes to the domestic brands she chooses to support, and she is careful to work only with lines that operate within the same kind of ethical fashion space. All of her vendors are vetted for responsible production processes, ensuring that their employees are earning a fair and living wage. Some of these companies include the underwear line Pact, which donates a portion of their proceeds to various projects (currently, they’re giving to urban community gardens); Fed by Threads, which gives eleven meals to hungry Americans for every tee shirt sold; and Nashelle jewelry, which is made only from recycled metals and which also gives a portion of its proceeds to American families in need.
We walk around the store a bit to take a look at the inventory. Swati points to the light tunics, spring scarves, a breezy sundress with retro collars. She mentions some bright Nigerian prints that will be coming within the next few weeks. A lot of it reflects her own sense of style, which is easy and elegant. She describes it as an easy transition from day to evening– “taking care of your kids and looking great while you do it.”
Which brings us to another basic tenet of Bhoomki: beauty. To be sure, every item in the shop is imbued with meaning, and Swati is more than happy to share its history with the often curious customers. She has created a space where people are able to have conversations about active consumerism and ethical fashion, and she has done so with great success. But often, beyond all of that, people come into Bhoomki simply because they want to wear what they see in the window.
“It’s been doing amazingly well and I feel so blessed,” Swati says. “I just feel that this amazing community has really embraced our philosophy, and I feel like people can come in here and find things that are comfortable and affordable. And then some people just come in here and want to find something beautiful to wear, something that will make them feel great. That’s the number one thing.
“We’re only going to buy things that we stand behind– first, because they’re beautiful, and then because they’re responsibly made.“
Bhoomki is located at 158 Fifth Avenue between Degraw and Douglass Streets. Open 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. (718) 857-5245.
Photos courtesy of Swati Argade