My family and I very recently returned from a trip to India, to visit the factory and our extended Apolina family. Once home, in my little cottage in rural England on a cold, grey day, I sat quietly with a cup of tea and tried to process the last week’s events. I’m feeling so blessed for all that I have and for the incredible experience of taking my family to India for the first time, and I wanted to share some of these thoughts with you.
Above all I was struck by the unbounded generosity we were shown in India. Such kindness gives you a renewed faith in humanity, and leads you to feel a deeper connection with all your fellow humans, something which is urgently needed in the world right now. There is so much heartbreak and despair to be felt for the world today, that the open-hearted kindness of those we met and spent time with in India was especially poignant.
When we arrived we were met with an overwhelming warmth and kindness – we were welcomed as family. Our manufacturer is family owned by a husband and wife team, Anjani and Sanjana, who are my age. The business was set up by Anjani’s father back in the early 1990s, and I have known the couple for 15 years now. They are among my closest friends.
On arrival Sanjana showed my girls around the office and the sampling rooms, patiently explaining each step of the process. They were greeted with kisses from the aunties who do all the handwork for our Apolina samples, and were fed Indian sweets by grandpa. On the final day of our visit it was my youngest daughter’s birthday and we decided to celebrate with the full team, who brought in their children. We gathered party dresses and shirts to gift to the kids, and made up party bags. Watching the kids connect and dance together, laugh and hold hands was truly magical. Seeing the kids try to stuff chocolate cake into Bonnie’s mouth made everyone laugh.
While out and about in Jaipur and Delhi we also witnessed some truly heartbreaking scenes. I began to feel so guilty, especially while staying at our beautiful hotel, which was a special treat for our family. But while I felt so deeply for the many people we saw and met who had so little, I was also struck by all the smiling faces. "How do you like my India?” we were asked countless times, “Are you enjoying my beautiful country?” The pride in this beautiful vibrant setting, with excitement all around, was clear. Even in the traffic chaos of Delhi every surface is an opportunity to spread joy, nothing is grey and industrial. Trucks, bridges and road boundaries are all ornately decorated in bright colours. It’s a feast for the eyes and you cannot help but feel the positivity. And with the incredible foods, beautiful decorative architecture and happy smiling faces, it all felt like such a contrast to life and attitudes back home in England.
The thing I am maybe most proud of is the relationship we have with our manufacturer and team in India. Apolina has only one manufacturer, which is very rare in the business. In the early days there were multiple hiccups, but we worked together to overcome them. While it would have been easy to find another manufacturer, this was not what I wanted. Our relationship is mutually supportive, and that’s key to me. Mistakes happen, and we continually work together to solve them.
In my early career I was working for a large fashion retailer, when it was acquired by one of the most well known businessmen in England. I watched as he squashed the creativity by focusing on his profits, which led to the company’s eventual fall from grace. It taught me a lot about business and what I would do differently.
When working with our manufacturer we try to be supportive and flexible, and we also receive the same in return. We don’t threaten cancellations and ask for discounts for mistakes and delays as is usual in the industry and we don’t squeeze them for better prices, or play one factory off against another to see who can give a better price. This is a new way of doing business, a kinder way. And I guarantee that it drives better results all around.
In India I sat down to think about sustainability and what we can do to continue pushing forward. I spoke to Anjani and Sanjana about certifications, organic fabrics and dyes, and then we had a frank talk. They told me to look around. We have the same faces in the factory for the past eight years of doing business. They are treated and paid well, they are securely employed, they stay. This is the biggest sign of success.
During Covid one factory building was turned into a makeshift shelter for teams. Meals were provided for two months to help people through the hardest time. We sent money across to help our teams, sponsored a team member’s hospital treatment, and helped pay for ventilators. These aren’t things we generally talk about – it’s not done for marketing purposes, it’s done from the heart. But I’ve realised that it’s important to share some of this, so you know what you contribute to when you buy from Apolina.
We are a family business. It’s not just my own family who all work on Apolina in some way – it’s a partnership of two families which spans a full team of people, all connected. Sanjana and Anjani our manufacturer, Suchitra and Arif our core team who oversee all elements of Apolina from initial sampling to sending finished production, Sanjeev our production manager, Sunil who looks after our production, auntie Sheela and auntie Neelam who work on hand embroideries, Omprakash and Pankaj who pack our styles, Maksood Masterji who has been making Apolina patterns since the first sample and Habib Masterji who looks after production patterns.
Knowing the people behind the scenes, seeing them and watching them work brings a great joy. Watching them show my daughters the processes with pride. Not all brands know their full manufacturing team. This, and knowing that our business helps to provide sustained employment to these people, is something I am proud of.