by Zainab Mahmood
In October 2022, three years into writing articles and making Instagram content on the harmful environmental and human impacts of the fashion industry, I started a Master’s in Environment, Politics and Development at SOAS.
When I was working on my application, I was dillydallying around about whether to study part-time or full-time. One thought that kept crossing my mind was that if I wasn’t getting much freelance work, I may as well study full-time. But there were a number of projects I wanted to develop that just needed some time and labour from me, and I had framed them in my mind as too ambitious.
Those projects included a South Asian sustainable fashion festival and a podcast series exploring how the textile and garment industries work in South Asia. Two years ago I interviewed two British Indian fashion designer-makers who tie in sustainability with celebrating traditional South Asian textiles and clothing production techniques. The rich discussions we had about how environmental and cultural sustainability go hand-in-hand planted the seed for a potential panel discussion or festival allowing for more British South Asians in fashion to explore sustainability through a cultural lens.
After starting my Master’s and realising I simply couldn’t give it the time and effort I wanted by studying full-time and balancing sleep, social life and potential freelance projects, I requested to drop to part-time. My ideas for the festival and podcast instantly started to flourish and when I discussed them with my mentor at the time, she asked if I was going to be curating this content under my own name or through a business, and I had never thought about it like that before.
As scary as it felt to start thinking about building a business versus planning a potentially one-off festival or podcast series, I trusted that through the contacts I’ve built up by collaborating with key institutions in ethical fashion like Fashion Revolution and my credibility as a thought leader in sustainable fashion, my drive would enable me to overcome inevitable challenges.
The GirlDreamer Accelerator Programme came at just the right time to guide my journey into the social impact realm and build my confidence. I found the social media and marketing aspects of running a business quite intuitive from already creating and sharing content on my platform, but building and funding a brand from the ground up was incredibly daunting. The programme gave me a sense of community with other women founders I could take inspiration from as well as equipped me with expert knowledge on branding and funding that I took forward when building out my deck.
During the Christmas break from the GirlDreamer Accelerator Programme, I named my business Ahista Stories – ‘ahista’ meaning slow in Urdu – and fleshed out our ethos and goals in a pitch deck. Ahista Stories is creating a sustainable fashion community for South Asians who live in the UK. Through digital content and live events, we explore how unsustainable the fashion industry is and the practical steps that each of us can take to change it. Articulating and visually representing my vision in the pitch deck felt like an important step in my founder journey and gave me even more confidence going back into the last few weeks of the programme.
Shortly after completing the programme in January 2023, I secured a grant of £5,000 from SOAS University of London and Santander Universities, and Ahista Stories was named Most Promising Venture of the Year. Not only does Ahista Stories champion slow fashion and the people who make our clothes, it represents a slow, mindful approach to building a community and business, which is ultimately an ongoing process. One of the final sessions of the GirlDreamer Accelerator Programme signposted me to Hatch Enterprise’s programme and eager to continue building Ahista (pun intended) alongside expert support and a community of like-minded founders, I applied to the Launchpad Programme and with a bursary completed it in July 2023.
Ahista Stories Live is our first in-person event and London’s first ever South Asian sustainable fashion festival, taking place on Saturday 7th October at Poplar Union. From panel discussions to market stalls and mending and upcycling workshops, we will celebrate traditional South Asian clothes and the people who make them with our community of South Asian storytellers.