NORBLACK NORWHITE on building a brand as 'weirdo brown girls'

NORBLACK NORWHITE on building a brand as 'weirdo brown girls'

By Priyanka Ganjoo & Samia Abbasi

Mriga Kapadiya and Amrit Kumar are the creators behind NORBLACK NORWHITE, a streetwear brand and creative platform based in Delhi. Amrit was born and raised in Toronto and Mriga was born in India, spent her childhood in Kuwait, and was raised in Toronto. NORBLACK NORWHITE has been featured in Wallpaper*, Asos, Fader, Fashion Television, I-D Magazine, Vogue India and Vogue Italy. They were also selected by Frida Gianinni (Ex - Creative Director of Gucci) as her favourite young designers from India for the Grazia Young Fashion Awards in 2012.

When I came across NORBLACK NORWHITE a few years ago, it struck me that it was unlike anything I’d seen before. In my mind “Western” and “Indian” were 2 distinct categories of fashion that occasionally borrowed influences from each other but were rooted in their identity. But NBNW stood on its own. Being a third culture kid, I could see myself in it. Also, Mriga and Amrit seem like the coolest girls on Earth. They built a community of creatives that cares about locally-sourced materials, storytelling, and representation way before these phrases became corporate buzz-words. So, here’s their story in their own words.

‘Weirdo brown girls’: an origin story

“We met hanging out with mutual friends in their garage, talking shit and laughing lots. We happened to have a similar eye for re-mixing and wearing Indian traditional textiles. We found peace together in being the ‘weirdo brown girls.’ A lot of the brown girls we knew seemed like they were all one person. They stuck to each other, looked fairly similar (no pun intended), and mingled with only each other with a lot of similar life goals mostly guided by their parents. It was awkward and uncomfortable at times to be a brown girl in those spaces, until we realized we don’t need to. We found each other amongst a crew of other weirdo brown kids. It felt great to know there were others out there that made us feel comfortable just as we were. After university we were both working in an advertising agency during the day, where we’d share homemade lunch, but were feeding our souls by throwing art shows and festivals, producing shoots, and re-working with vintage after work and on weekends.

“We met hanging out with mutual friends in their garage, talking shit and laughing lots. We happened to have a similar eye for re-mixing and wearing Indian traditional textiles. We found peace together in being the ‘weirdo brown girls.’ A lot of the brown girls we knew seemed like they were all one person. They stuck to each other, looked fairly similar (no pun intended), and mingled with only each other with a lot of similar life goals mostly guided by their parents. It was awkward and uncomfortable at times to be a brown girl in those spaces, until we realized we don’t need to. We found each other amongst a crew of other weirdo brown kids. It felt great to know there were others out there that made us feel comfortable just as we were. After university we were both working in an advertising agency during the day, where we’d share homemade lunch, but were feeding our souls by throwing art shows and festivals, producing shoots, and re-working with vintage after work and on weekends.

an early picture of Mriga and Amrit

photo credit: NORBLACK NORWHITE

NORBLACK NORWHITE was born from a trip we took to Kutch, Gujarat in India. We were curious to learn more about tie dye practices, specifically Bandhani. There was no set intention of creating a clothing brand or cultural platform, but one thing led to the next. NBNW started coming alive during our early years living in Bombay, as a space for us by us: mashing up our love for colour, patterns, textiles with the 90’s aesthetic that we were raised in, while unapologetically celebrating the multiple cultures & immigrant communities we identify with. We are storytellers; we document cultural movements, age-old practices and colour in fun and digestible ways, expressing our feelings through textiles. We aim to respectfully share our journey, how it is relevant to our everyday lives and people around us, and work to represent the current state of living. The name NORBLACK NORWHITE came from the idea of exploring the grey space of culture, the yin and yang of nature, celebrating how opposite we can be. We wanted to pay homage to Michael Jackson’s music video ‘Black or White.’

We moved to India to experience a new way of living, to connect to our Indian roots. We wanted to study Indian art and life from an anthropological lens, but still carry our Toronto experiences with us. This informs the way we make things happen, how we design our life and work. Neither of us come from a fashion design school background, but we quickly learned to apply all of our artistic loves and practices in creating NBNW. The business was taking shape at the same time as us having moved across the world, away from our families and friends, so it was a huge change.

We had to learn a whole new way of getting things done, while at the same time, getting to know people, building relationships from scratch, and navigating the crazy city of Bombay.

After a bunch of amazing years in Bombay, we realized that rent prices were killing us. So, we made the difficult decision of packing up and seeing if Delhi would be more kind to our budget. We love Bombay so much. It was a really hard decision to leave, but after 4 years in Delhi, we realized that we couldn’t have built our work and team the way we have if we stayed in Bombay. 

We wouldn’t be doing this without each other. We’re basically sisters and have lived and worked out the same space for maybe too many years. 

So, there’s a lot of unspoken understanding. We can be quite opposite in personality, and our approach to living and moving through the world, but we have a mutual love for similar aesthetics. We have a shared, deep respect for each others’ wellness and a trust that you can’t really fake—unless you've experienced the spectrum that life throws at you, together.

Highs & lows of creating

The release of our first collection was definitely a huge milestone for us. It was the start of the journey. We took all the money we had and headed to a trade show in Paris. We got our first order within 10 minutes of the show opening by Japanese buyers that were super excited about us. This gave us confidence to believe we had something special brewing. We were also giddy when the founders of Opening Ceremony, Humberto and Carol, came to our stall and asked for a lookbook. The Opening ceremony founders’ visit just helped solidify confidence that our work has its own voice and is special enough for curators to take notice of it. 

Another highlight was when we were sitting in Kutch with the Bandhani family we work with. We got the news that we received our first large wholesale order, that featured the work of this family. We were all so excited and hugged each other—it felt like it was our family celebrating a big victory! One of our clamp-dye design ideas was selected to be part of the Fabric of India showcase at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. We knew it was a big deal, but didn't realize the actual scale of it until we walked into the opening and saw the massive exhibition unveiled. It felt amazing to see our work be a part of that space, presented in that incredible exhibition and alongside so many other inspiring Indian artists. Literally just still being here. 

There were so many moments we wanted to give up, literally didn’t know how we were going to pay next months' rent and just completely overwhelmed by the nature of this industry. 

Somehow we would either manifest a situation, or it felt like the universe would have our back to keep on going. It was always scary to feel insecure about not having formal design training. Are we good enough? Quickly, those feelings flipped, as we realized the power that comes from intuitive design and creating things from feeling and learning about technicals along the way. All of this helped us believe that the world and industry could be open to our brand, that it wasn’t just in our heads. 

Beauty, but make it ‘no fuss’

We’re scared of magazine shoots, because they usually put too much makeup on us and try to blow dry our hair! We are creating space for people to not feel pressured to dress any certain way.

No Fuss Zone: Comfort and color are the core to our design. It’s important that anyone that wears our gear feels great in their skin and in the threads. 

We can get ready really quickly—basically in 5 to 10 minutes. We both never really grew up wearing makeup, so that saves a lot of time and energy, but we’re always down to indulge in doing our faces up when we feel like glamour mode. That’s a rare occasion. Hair is usually chill: tied back, in a bun, braid in, or just hanging free. Amrit is more into planning an outfit as she’s getting ready in the morning or sometimes the night before. Mriga puts her outfits together as so on as she’s out of the shower; she finds planning outfits to be way too much pressure. 

3 must-have products: stranded island edition

Mriga’s Picks:

  1. Tub of cold-pressed coconut oil
  2. Multani ki mitti
  3. Forest Essentials Advanced Sanjeevani Face Elixir

Amrit’s Picks: 

  1. Pahadi Local, Gutti Ka Tel
  2. Lucas’ Papaw
  3. Aztec Secret Healing Clay

image of a model wearing a yellow tie-dye outfit

photo credit: Fabian Guerrero, Adornment, Hair & MUA — Nena Soul Fly, Model — @kohinoorgasm

South Asian representation: embracing your story

Tell your story.
Dig deep and stay honest.

It’s nice to see a spectrum of the ‘global South Asian’ sharing, speaking up, and creating stories. There are so many people with various perspectives. Before, it was only Bollywood-related things that would take up a lot of space. It’s important for everyone to be true to their own story and exploration and be okay with exploring a South Asian lens in whatever form that looks like. That doesn’t mean that everyone necessarily has to love each other’s work or representation just because they are South Asian. That can get awkward and inauthentic. However, it’s nice to have the space to be able to explore all types of representation where people are drawn to whatever narrative they choose. Our advice for creatives exploring their South Asian identity: Authenticity is what keeps everything real and consistent, because we know that a trend goes up just as fast as it comes crashing down. The world doesn’t need anymore of that.”


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