Vihanga Sontam always wanted to start her own fashion label. Growing up in a small town six hours from Hyderabad in southern India, it was imperative to wear comfortable, breathable garments. Sontam says it’s common to buy fabric and bring it to a tailor to make your clothes for you by hand.
“Everyone wears handmade garments there, and it’s a given thing that you buy cotton because you can breathe in it more,” she says. “Here, it’s like, ‘It’s handwoven?! Oh my God, it’s not done by a machine?'”
After receiving her MFA in fashion from the School of the Art Institute, Sontam joined forces with her now-husband, Miles Jackson, who has a background in sculpture, to launch Vihanga. They focus on creating small, handmade collections in an ethical, sustainable, and all-around-thoughtful way. Vihanga’s pieces tend to have fluid, simple designs that toe the line between formal and informal, masculine and feminine.
Starting the business in Chicago wasn’t always part of the plan. Though Sontam was studying here, she planned to move back to India after school and start her label there. But soon after graduation, she met Jackson. They “did long-distance” for a while, until Sontam moved back to Chicago in summer 2018.
“We were like, ‘Why not start it in Chicago?,’ because we have such a great community here,” Sontam says.
Their first collection launched in March: ten pieces made in rich earth tones. The spring/summer collection was titled Arrival, and the campaign for the clothing was photographed in a stylized airport security area. The models appear in stocking feet, their shoes in a plastic bin—in one image, a security guard holds a metal detector under a model’s armpit. It’s meant to be cheeky, but it’s also based on the real-life trials of flying in and out of the U.S. as a nonnative.
“The inspiration comes from these political things that we were experiencing when we were doing long-distance,” Sontam says. “It was really hard for me to come back multiple times to the U.S. because they’re like, ‘Oh, you graduated, why are you back?’ They kind of pull you into a room and traumatize you. It was very traumatizing and at the same time, we didn’t want to take it so seriously and kind of flipped that anxiety into our work.”
The name “Arrival” in some ways also refers to the materials. Sontam and Jackson brought all the fabric for the debut pieces to the U.S. from India in two huge suitcases. They hope to continue sourcing most of their fabric from India, though the material for the fall/winter collection came from New York because cold-weather fabrics like wool aren’t common in the subcontinent. Still, all the pieces have flowing, loose-fitting silhouettes. The new collection began launching on September 23; they staggered its release, adding one new item to the website each week, with the final item out this week. A pair of red, high-waisted, wide-weft corduroy pants has already sold out. An iridescent red long-sleeved crop top with a blue overlay is another customer favorite.
For Jackson and Sontam, it’s crucial to be intentional with each component of their business. When Sontam was working as a designer’s assistant in Mumbai, she witnessed firsthand the exploitation of low-wage garment workers.
“There’s different kinds of exploitation everywhere in the industry,” Jackson says. “But the base of it is the actual labor, and those are the people who aren’t getting paid enough or have bad working conditions. And that’s really important for us—that we start at a point where we’re like, ‘Are we doing this ethically? Do we know the person who’s doing it for us? Do we have a relationship with them?'”
Sontam currently makes all the clothing by hand; the online-only label is small enough that it’s a sustainable workload. “Every time I’m making something for someone, I know exactly where it’s going, and I know how much time and effort goes into making a garment,” she says. “Every time I go out to a huge brand, they’re selling T-shirts for like $5, I’m like, ‘Do you actually pay a person to make this?'”
Pieces in the current collection range from $50 to $175, and each one is made to order—that means Vihanga can make clothes for any body type. And the items are purposefully marketed as unisex.
“I think that, even though we’re not a queer brand, it is important that we maintain a certain allyship to that, and just be aware that we can produce things that are more masculine or more feminine, but we aren’t necessarily going to say who should wear what,” Jackson says. “Anyone can buy anything.”
Vihanga is a local embodiment of how the fashion world is changing; the recent declaration of bankruptcy by luxury behemoth Barneys is a case in point. Consumers don’t rely on corporations for trends like they used to, and they’re starting to care more about the toll fashion takes on the environment and the workers making the clothes. More and more brands are focusing on making the industry more sustainable, from incorporating recycled materials into their garments to staging carbon-neutral fashion shows. Labels like Chromat and Savage X Fenty are unabashed in their desire to make clothes for all bodies and all people.
“The standard—what you’d consider the pillars of fashion, are dissolving in a way, and I think that we’re in an exciting point for lots of people, but especially for us where there’s so much openness,” Jackson says. “As long as you’re doing something that feels authentic, that’s key.” v