Shades of Excellence: Founder of House of Bilimoria on finding her identity in the fashion industry

Born and raised on the west coast of Canada in Surrey, Shilpa Bilimoria-Cherry founded House of Bilimoria in 2008. Her journey into the world of textiles and sustainability developed from her rich Gujarati heritage, with House of Bilimoria becoming a brand with empathy for people from all walks of life, and their own stories and experiences.

Bilimoria-Cherry has been sewing ever since she was eight years old, so she knows the craft “like the back of her hand”. Once she decided that was her calling, she got all of her qualifications as well as a BA in Design for Fashion and Textiles.

“I then went on to work on the high street as a designer, kind of for all the brands that you see at a high street retailer. But I very quickly decided that wasn’t for me and left and set up House of Bilimoria in 2008.”

In the six months the 39-year-old entrepreneur spent working in the fast fashion industry, she quickly realised how “out of touch that was in contrast to the craft I grew up in, with my grandfather being a tailor”. She says this is what heavily influenced her decision to start House of Bilimoria as well as after leaving her position, being pregnant with her first child.

“My business sort of grew as she came into this world because she was born in 2006,” she says. “So then I knew I wanted to the something around her, and with the hours that I worked in that fashion company, there would have been no way to take care of a young child.”

She goes on to say that a lot of her work revolves around ethics and making sure that she is able to be with her family and have a sustainable way of life as well as a career.

With fast fashion retailers mostly targeting young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are often students with low to no income, and women in this age group shopping fast fashion more often than any other group, Bilimoria-Cherry has a thorough answer to justify the price of sustainable fashion.

“When someone comes to saying my products are too expensive and they’re not going to buy them because of it, depending on the person and how bold they are, I ask if they would go to work for free,” she says.

“Would you go and work for fun? Yes, I love what I do, but I am not going to just sew people’s clothes and make them for fun because then I could just make my own wardrobe and be happy with that.”

She says that is one way of looking at that along with the factors that go into the making of the clothing. “What I try to do with my socials and any time of speaking, I really unravel that process of making from start to finish and what it really takes to make a garment beautifully. And that’s absolutely what we do, the care and luxury in our items are at the top level.

“Of course, if something was made very quickly without paying any attention to seams, using the cheapest materials, you can get that number down. But the item is not going to have the same energy and life as the item we spent that time and care on.”

Bilimoria-Cherry says there is a lot of explaining that goes into it, as she would never “just turn around and says that’s the price”, as the brand is extremely transparent. She adds that she is even willing to break down the cost if customers want to see it, confirming how important ethics are for the founder.

“I think that’s where the companies that do charge a lot less are not so transparent,” she says. “Especially as people of colour, just knowing that often it’s our people and countries we come from where people are being harmed in the process.

“So it’s really about getting back into touch with who is actually losing in this in some way, shape or form,” she explains. “People say, ‘Oh well, people have got jobs’, but they are not good working conditions. The ethics aren’t there, the policies aren’t in place as well as the basic medical health and safety.”

Describing the brand as a “luxury upcycle”, House of Bilimoria takes people’s and brands’ remnants, instead of “purposely going out there and producing fabric for our own brand”.

This can be seen in the brand's collection, Nile, which was released earlier this year. Nile uses sarongs that were printed by their partners in India, Craft Resource Centre. “They had these sarongs and I basically just asked them what was hanging around in the stockroom and not used,” she says. “Brands can order new block prints and stuff but at the end of the day, there’s always going to be a waste factor.

“We basically take what’s people’s waste and turn it into new,” she explains. “We sourced that by having connections in India, we have connections here in the UK, different charities that go into charity shops, pick up saris there, because I often create our ranges from different saris and things. So we’re always on the hunt for fabrics that fit our aesthetic.”

She also expands on how difficult setting up a business as a woman of colour can be. She says that one thing that comes to mind is her experience at trade shows. “When you look at your stall and it doesn’t have as many visitors as your counterparts, you’re just standing there and have no sales or people come up and approach you or just kind of look and then walk away.

“You don’t always place it as, 'I’m an Indian woman standing here', but the thought always just crossed my mind,” she says. She explains there is a lot of brands that use Indian fabrics but are founded by people of an English or white background.

“You’ll find that people go there and buy the stuff, but why won’t you buy an Indian fabric from an Indian person?”

She often gets asked whether being a fashion designer means that she only designs Indian or South Asian clothes. “We specialise in shirts, that’s what we do, so for people to even understand that… It doesn’t mean I’m just going to design Indian clothes for Indian people, you know.

The founder mentions struggles with placing her own identity and being strong enough to say she does not need to be “labelled or put into a box”. “I can be a designer just like everyone else and it doesn’t mean I just have to design Indian clothes. I love Indian, and South Asian fabrics and stuff. But that's not our limit.

“I think there's something about valuing ourselves as well, that comes up because with the price points of the clothes we've come on a long, long journey. And I think years ago, I probably could not even put the correct price on something.

“I've done a lot of bespoke clothing, but I have learned over the years that I need to value my time just as much as if I'm paying my staff,” she says.

“But even just valuing myself, and that's kind of a personal journey. And looking at it as the founder, there's a certain amount of stuff you put in because you love it. But then again, that sort of thing is like, how am I valuing myself, and being able to go and put up my price.”

Bilimoria-Cherry mentions that the brand is currently “sitting in a highlight, sort of a good part of our brand”. Saying that this many years on, she wouldn’t have it any other way, she says: “I can solidly say to someone, this is what we do and this is who we are.

“This is what you get when you come to us, you get your fit, you get the care, you get the energy in the cloth,” she says. “You know, we will find something that will either be bespoke, we make things for you that absolutely have your confidence and your embodiment turn up, and we’re really good that, I know that.”

The brand has alongside Nile also released a collection named ‘Landed’, which she explains that “it was sort of during coastal and just landed in who we are as a brand”. Later this year, in September, they are also launching a collection of dresses, ‘Jina’, inspired by energy channelled from Bilimoria-Cherry’s ancestors.

“I feel like I get downloads of energy that needs channelling from our ancestors, because of my grandparents and this journey we’re going on is telling a story,” she says.

“It’s called Jina, because my grandfather’s middle name was Jina and that was actually his father’s name, so they are the Gina dresses.

“The story that comes along with it is absolutely everything,” she says smiling. “My heart explodes telling it and I think that’s just a part of being more of a sort of journey of an art form of fashion.”

In the next five years, Bilimoria-Cherry is hoping to grow the tech side of the business. “We hope to have more of an interactive dynamic website that can do things where people could send us their fabrics,” she explains. “So say if you had a fabric in your wardrobe that was maybe somebody that you loved, or just the fabric that you really, really loved, if you had even like a bit of linen from something that you had, and you wanted to transform that into one of our styles that it will be super seamless and easy for you to take a picture, see that come up on the website.”

Furthermore, she’d like to see more people “tuning into this sort of ‘Let me take something that’s already in my wardrobe and upcycle that into something’” as well as people falling in love with their embodiment over being trendy.

“Just getting that message out there really,” she says.