Longtime fashion designer Kalpana Peck was scanning a crowded bazaar in Bangalore in 2011 when a vendor selling purses and totes caught her eye. The items had been created using a tightly woven fiber she didn't recognize, and a pattern that was different from the local basket weaving she'd become accustomed to during trips to visit her family in India.
"I asked what it was exactly and the seller said 'banana fiber,'" recalled Peck, who has always had an eye for finding unique fabrics and patterns. "I said 'wow, I never knew you could work with banana fiber."
It turns out that you can. In addition to its medicinal and religious uses, banana fiber, which comes from the bark of a banana tree, has long been a source of natural fiber in tropical parts of South Asia, where (you guessed it) banana trees are plentiful. The fiber is renowned for its durability and tensile strength, which equates to the amount of stress it can endure before breaking or unraveling.
Peck was so impressed by the craftsmanship she discovered in the bazaar that she teamed up with the shop's owner, who put her in touch with a small collective of women in a village outside Bangalore who specialize in turning banana bark into accessories, such as purses and clutches.
"I was really impressed because all the natural fiber bags were made by women and the weaving was done by women," Peck says. "It was very empowering."
Fast forward three years and Peck, with the help of her two business partners —Vandana Prakash, who has a background in design, and Mercedes O. Monasterio, who has worked in tech—have launched Earthredz, a collection of handbags, totes and clutches that combine the skill of age-old weaving techniques from India with the American designers' colorful aesthetic, which draws inspiration from traditional threading patterns from Mexico, Asia, and elsewhere. Asked to describe her products' niche, Peck says they don't exactly have one.
"I would like to say that you can wear our products anywhere or anytime, but they are for people who like to be a little different and aren't afraid of color," Peck says, pointing out that they've even designed a more glamorous take on the retro fanny pack (above). "I also think they'll appeal to people who are socially aware and don't buy something because of the label, but because of the quality and the story behind it."
Earthredz's first major public exhibition and sale begins Saturday during a one-day "Pop-Up Shop" at 2800 Kirby Drive (Suite B105). The exhibition will include two distinct lines—a banana fiber and a leather line— that share some of the same materials, such as the use of recycled saris, silk, cotton, and patchwork, Peck says. Some of the company's line, which ranges from $50 to $150, is already available at Kalimba and Artisan Designs in Rice Village, as well as Caruggi's in Uptown and Jubilee in the Heights. Some of their bags are also available in stores in Dallas, New Orleans, Mexico, and Minnesota.
In addition to being paid a fair wage, Peck says that for every banana fiber product the company sells, a percentage of the profits will go towards the purchase of additional looms for the rural villages where her employees live. To see a video of the thread-making process, click here.
"We made a trip to India earlier this year and asked the women what they would like for us to do to enhance their lives," Peck says. "They said better surroundings and more looms so that local people can produce more banana fiber."