It wouldn't be exaggerating to describe 2020 as a very tough year for many. For Ana Wilkinson-Gee there has been a silver lining after fleeing India during our first lockdown and bringing her family home to New Zealand.
Ana and husband Daniel moved from Hawke's Bay to rural India 11 years ago with their three children and started Holi Boli, an ethical women's clothing manufacturer and fashion brand that empowers women in rural India through sewing training and safe and dignified employment.
Since returning home, the family has settled in Hamilton and opened the New Zealand branch of the brand.
As well as keeping the sewing house open in India, Holi Boli was also selected as one of six labels to share their craft on the runway in New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW) 2021's opening show. The Sustainability Show was to shine a light on some of New Zealand's most inspiring and empowering designers who are leading the way.
"Unfortunately NZ Fashion Week has been postponed, this means our new dress release is on hold. Hence, we are promoting our Holi Boli thoughtfulness journals in the meantime in a bid to keep cash flow going so we can keep empowering our ladies in India with ongoing wages," Ana says.
However, she remains optimistic and upbeat, reflecting on the success of Holi Boli.
"It's amazing to come out of such a tough year and see so much good and growth sprouting up for our ladies and the business. It was really heart-breaking to have to evacuate from our village, home, life, friends and work in India last year. But if it weren't for us being repatriated back to New Zealand, the opportunity to have a voice and platform at NZFW wouldn't be happening."
From their garage in the Waikato, they have managed to keep the business running remotely, joining their seamstresses in India on video calls daily to keep production going, in between lockdowns.
"They've had to upskill themselves and fill some gaps that I left. After the initial 'swim or drown' period, they realised they could swim and then their confidence has grown.
"Having one of our senior staff members on the ground 'woman-up' and take the position of managing the nitty gritty daily running of the sewing house in India, meant that I had the head space to apply myself to upscaling Holi Boli."
The dream of extending their reach to empower more women in hard-to-reach-places has come to fruition.
"This last year I've had the time to invest into those new relationships. We're now working with and empowering two other small ethical production houses that have a similar calling to Holi Boli — one in North India (Swahlee) and one in Cambodia (Morijana)."
Ana says on a daily basis, this involves drawing garment construction books, sending through production orders and joining staff on video calls to walk them though manufacturing for Holi Boli.
"For the directors of these social enterprises, it is encouraging to have someone with my technical pattern making and tailoring skills come alongside to grow and strengthen their team, financially as well as with industry skills."
Although it is every designer's dream to appear at NZFW, Ana says she gave that dream up long ago.
"I decided that the life I wanted was not one of glitz and glamour but one of deep meaning, where I would be hidden away in the dusty backstreets of India, making a tangible, positive impact on women's lives. The legacy I want to leave behind is one that inspires women to help other women, and see lives enriched through connection, creativity, collaboration and kindness."
■ To purchase a NZ$35 journal and be part of the global sisterhood of women helping women visit https://www.holiboli.com/products/holi-boli-thoughtfulness-journal