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THE HANDS THAT KNIT THE HAT THAT HAILEY WORE

From Rajkot to Vogue, the little-known story of entrepreneur Mina Patel.

Words by:

Darshan Desai

Photos by:

Nitin Sadana

Minaben wears a colourful patchwork robe, handmade by the women of her cluster. It took six women to make the many squares of the robe and one woman to sew them all together.

There’s a truth universally acknowledged that if Hailey Bieber wears it, if Gabriella Karefa-Johnson approves it and if it makes it to the cover of American Vogue, then it must be Fashion with a capital F.

So, as the stars of style converged on Malibu Beach to shoot the cover of American Vogue’s June/July 2021 issue, Hailey Bieber delivered a bold heavy-on-the-prints dose of escapism in what seemed like a never-ending pandemic.

There was the expected: a checked Versace top with a Dolce & Gabbana skirt with retro flowers, a Gucci vest and a Moschino Couture skirt. Fresher entries with the uber-cool Elder Statesman waffle-knit checked cardigan also graced the pages. When the images finally made it to Instagram, showing Hailey Bieber sipping Starbucks while playing with her pooch, Oscar, one accessory stood out as something not quite High Fashion: an Emily Levine Lollipop Swirl hat.

But fashion it was. In this Instagram era, the shot by Hugo Comte was everywhere. The pandemic’s first summer “lewk” was born. There was no hiding from the hat. Hailey Bieber wore it on holiday, Bella Hadid wore a similar crochet hat, as did her brother Anwar Hadid. W Magazine showed readers two ways to wear the bucket hat and L’Officiel called it the coolest accessory for Spring 2021.

A little research revealed that designer Emily Levine found inspiration for the hat in India. The India of Eat, Pray, Love, ecstatic colours and a ready workforce for whom needlepoint and crochet is still a way of life. Finding the hands that knit the hat that Hailey wore was not an easy task. But one craft cluster leads to another, and we finally found Mina Patel in Rajkot.

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Presiding over a self-help group of 150 women, Minaben couldn’t quite comprehend the fashion moment she helped create. “All I know is that once [Hailey Bieber] wore it, the orders didn’t stop coming in,” she said.

IT ALL BEGAN on a summer afternoon in 2013. A new mother, Minaben stepped out of her home in search of a pair of booties for her toddler. When she couldn’t find it in stores, she heard about a local woman from her colony who sold handmade booties out of her apartment. Minaben picked up a pair. When she returned home, she showed her purchases to friends and family. “I was surprised. Many women said they could copy these. Some assured me that they could make them better,” she said.

Over dinner with her husband, Minaben had an audacious idea. What if these women could be organised to work together? Would it be a viable business?

It seemed like a tall order for a woman born into a farmer’s family in Navi Moti Bhagedi, a village in Jamnagar, Gujarat. But Minaben was a dreamer. She had a graduate degree in biochemistry and had worked earlier as an export executive for a pharmaceuticals company. She had also gained experience while working alongside her husband in his chemical export business. She understood the export market and regulations better than the domestic one. When Minaben began her search online, she found many Indians shipping handmade hats to Europe and North America, and decided to jump in.

Many women in the area made products from home to supplant their incomes, and sold their wares locally.

Minaben and her cluster of women are hard at work, creating a range of bucket hats and beanies employing just yarn and a crochet hook; Gabriella wears Ka-Sha; Siddhant Zinzuwadia wears Antar Agni.
Minaben and her cluster of women are hard at work, creating a range of bucket hats and beanies employing just yarn and a crochet hook.

Minaben knew nothing about running a business in India, and a career in local retail didn’t hold much appeal. But export was a different matter. Minaben already had an export and trade license for supplying chemicals to schools, universities and laboratories abroad.

THE FIRST STEP was to organise a group of women into a knitting cluster. When Minaben researched government schemes for new entrepreneurs, she learnt about self-help groups or SHGs. These are associations of women entrepreneurs and workers recognised by the government and eligible for support schemes. Minaben began with three ladies in her group, who started by knitting booties and tops. With a tiny inventory, she began looking for buyers.

She shared her catalogue in the business-to-business (B2B) marketplace on IndiaMart, Indian Yellow Pages and Trade India. She also uploaded catalogues online. Soon, the enquiries started coming in. Her first client was from the Netherlands—one of the products they wanted was a dream catcher. Unaware of its significance or style, Minaben asked one woman to crochet the centre while another fitted it on a ring. As the enquiries started coming in, she began to work with the women to expand from baby booties to bags, bikinis and hats. Her company, named Jyotirmay Overseas after her son, took off.

“We started with beaded ornaments and [macrame] bags. These were words and things I never knew but I just made them,” she said.

Minaben had never tried her hand at crochet or beadwork. Nor did she want to. As a businesswoman, she was concerned with finding the right raw materials. “The toughest thing was to find the right kind of threads,” she said.

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As business picked up, word got around. Women from different parts of the country started calling her for work; some called from Andhra Pradesh after finding her online; others heard of her from friends and acquaintances. A few women were professionals—for instance, a teacher who enjoyed beadwork in her spare time—but most were housewives who needed extra cash and a job that allowed them to work from home.

While some knew the work, others needed to be trained. “Many were absolutely raw but shared one similarity: they were prepared to learn and to work hard,” Minaben said.

A woman’s earnings in this group depend on the hours she works and the speed of her hands. Some women, unable to spare much time, earn just Rs 1,000 a month. Others earn Rs 20,000. Vilasben earns Rs 50,000 a month and has a team of twelve women under her. Not only is she fast, she understands style. Still, no two hands are the same.

The self-help group has since expanded to a network of 150 women living within 200 kilometres of Rajkot. Jyotirmay Overseas has become more successful than Minaben could have ever imagined. The firm has an annual turnover of 74 lakh rupees and the figure is rising. She pays her team more than the market price as an incentive, and only works on orders so as to avoid losses. Fortunately, one buyer has led to another and the orders have never stopped. Today, she has customers across Europe and America.

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IT IS NOT uncommon for international designers, from small boutiques to the most storied ateliers in Paris, to employ Indian artisans in their production processes. But selling items in the international market is far more complex than hawking booties in a small town.

Western designers have rigorous quality control. To meet their demands, Minaben instituted a system of regular checks to ensure that quality was maintained, allowing the business to grow. Area-wise group leaders were appointed to teach the women the requirements of the orders. Minaben still carries out a final quality check to ensure that stock is never rejected.

Despite the demands of the job and her family, Minaben continued educating herself. She picked up a diploma in French in 2018 and later participated in a business workshop for women entrepreneurs at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. Bookish and with a keen interest in biographies, she had never touched a copy of Vogue in her life. “I picked up Femina once or twice but I’m completely removed from the fashion world,” she said.

That changed when UK designer Emily Levine saw her online catalogue and got in touch with her. Levine was looking for beaded ornaments and a crochet bag. When she came to Rajasthan on a sourcing trip, Minaben sent her samples. Levine placed her orders immediately. Minaben took to the young British designer. “She had good ideas and a desire to learn about India,” she recalled. Together they travelled to Kutch; while one learnt about the East, the other learnt about the West.

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IN MARCH 2020, at the start of the pandemic-induced lockdown, Minaben left the city for the village. She returned to her mother’s house in Moti Bhagedi, two hours from Rajkot. The village is surrounded by fields and there was little to do. Minaben carried some threads and material with her and found three women who could knit. “Emily had recently returned from Japan with a hat and we thought, let’s try and make it in different colour variations,” she said.  

Stuck at home the whole day, the women began knitting. When they stepped out to pick up groceries, they also picked up thread. The women made hat after hat but with borders closed, the products could not be exported. When the borders reopened, Minaben rushed to post the hats.

Months later, when Vogue stylist Gabriella Karefa Johnson put the hat on Hailey Bieber’s head, Levine sent Minaben the “happiest message” and an image of the pink-and-red hat basking in the Californian sun. “To be honest, I didn’t even know who Hailey Bieber was until she wore our hat. I knew her husband was a famous singer,” said Minaben. Days later, the 70-euro hat sold out and Levine called Minaben in a panic.

“We made as many hats as we could, as the orders kept coming in,” she said. The women struggled to keep up with production, but somehow they always pulled through.

Minaben is now determined to expand her network of women artisans. In December, she added another feather to her cap. She left India’s shores for the first time to showcase her group’s work at the 25th L’Artigiano in Fiera, an internationally renowned craft fair in Milan, Italy. The fair is one of the largest and most prestigious events of its kind, selecting and exhibiting craft products that stand out for authenticity, originality and quality. Minaben was Rajkot’s first participant.

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Darshan Desai

Darshan Desai is the founder editor of Development News Network, Gujarat. In his three-decade-long career as a journalist, he has worked with news organisations such as The Hindu, The Indian Express, and the India Today Group.

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