From the age of 19, Laura May designed for some of Australia’s highly revered, locally made labels and watched as they eventually succumbed to the global fast fashion machine. Depleted from the more-is-more fast fashion culture and saddened by the disconnection, pollution and waste, Laura May envisioned a conscious alternative. Inspired by a profound immersion in Mexican culture, indigenous artisan craft and a dedicated Tantra and Hatha yoga practice, she created NAGNATA fashion and lifestyle label, which embodies artistry, modernity and sustainability.
With the recent launch of the unique organic cotton movement-knitwear collection, PRAVAYAMA brings you What It Takes: The story of the NAGNATA journey. From the power of choosing differently, navigating fears and challenges to staying purpose-aligned, Laura May shares how NAGNATA was created and why it will never be just another yoga lifestyle brand.
WHO MADE MY CLOTHES?
I’d been working for fashion brands in the design and production rooms since I was 19. When I started in fashion most designer labels were still making locally. I would drive between our cutters and makers in Surry Hills, dropping off fabric and delivering trims and doing the tedious task of quality control, checking over all the garments and then packing orders down at the warehouse. As much as these jobs would make me want to cry from frustration sometimes, there was a real connection between designer and maker and I knew the production chain. I spent time interning overseas in Paris and New York and it was much the same – it was all very personal.
By my mid 20s, the brands I was working for back in Sydney began taking the majority of production off-shore, so I travelled often to Hong Kong and China to visit suppliers and worked in Bali for a while but the quality was terrible. The industry was changing and it was because fast fashion started to boom and the market became more competitive.
Overseas factories could offer prices half the cost and manage the whole process. While I was pretty happy not to be driving back and forth in Sydney traffic all day, I now had no idea who made the clothes I designed.
THE POWER OF FAST FASHION
There was so much I loved about fashion, but the more deeply involved I became in the industry the more I saw the cracks. I was in a great job at the time, a cool street brand with an artistic collective of friends. We were traveling the world a few times a year on inspiration and selling trips in LA, NY, Paris and Japan and would pass through Bangkok to source from the vintage warehouses. We nostalgically look back on that time as the good-ol-days in fashion because brands were doing well and we were traveling and discovering the world through our work.
After a few years though, the effects of fast fashion were really felt as we were forced to further cut prices, design more collections each year, make it cheaper, do it quicker – adapt to the fast fashion model but expected to still keep our artistic point of difference.It became really stressful and I started to feel a bit depressed about what I was making as there was so much disconnect and our work was losing its integrity. It was a shame as the brand I worked for was originally very culture-rich and anti-establishment but they were being forced into the fast fashion system.
THE REVOLT AGAINST FAST FASHION
A turning point for me was visiting a denim factory in southern China. I saw blue-green septic-looking polluted waterways around the area and as I walked around the washhouse the smell of chemicals was overpowering and I remember feeling light-heated and nauseous. I’d worked in a denim washhouse in Sydney, and while there is a lot of water wastage with traditional denim washing, the chemicals weren’t so intense. It was likely also the scale of production, but regardless, the pollution in the waterways was enough to make me feel guilty and some take some sense of responsibility.
In 2011 Green Peace ran ‘The Detox Campaign’ that exposed global clothing brands and directly linked them to toxic water pollution. I remember this opening my eyes that little bit further in understanding how incredibly polluting and wasteful the fashion industry is.
We know too much now to turn a blind eye anymore and we as an emerging brand have a social responsibility to do things more sustainably than in the past.
I knew there were better ways to do things. I wanted to take what I loved in fashion but found it on sustainable business practices and build a brand with longevity. I’d been practicing yoga since I was a teenager and was really committed to my practice by this stage in my life. I’d spent a lot of time reading eastern philosophy books, which definitely influenced my perspectives on the world and yoga had helped me move through some difficult times, so I knew there was wisdom in these teachings.
It felt natural to integrate yoga and philanthropic work into the foundations of the brand, as I knew these were things I’d care about for my lifetime, and could positively impact other people’s lives. It was important to me to create something personal and with meaning that would transcend trends and generations.
INSPIRATION WHEN DETACHING FROM THE SYSTEM
At 27, I travelled around Mexico and Guatemala for a year just making quick trips back to LA, NY and one to Sydney to avoid overstaying my visa. It was a liberating period in my life as I was able to detach significantly from my normal western lifestyle and try different ways of living. I studied yoga, tantra, metaphysics and meditation. I gained a much deeper understanding of yoga – and myself, in a way I couldn’t in the city, being ingrained in the ‘system’.
I lived in a Pyramid in San Marcos on Lake Atitlan for a while (my friends seriously thought I’d joined a cult) and went to the Rainbow Gathering in 2012 for the turn of the Mayan era, held in the middle of the Palenque jungle near the Mayan ruins. I lived like a hippie with my new hippie friends and I loved it! People were really open minded and welcoming, as opposed to the more clique communities we get used to in the cities.
Creatively and culturally it was amazing time. I had time to think, read, draw and write and ideas for my own brand were forming. The traditional Mayan textiles of the local people inspired the concept for an artisanal line within the brand and on later trips to India I began our program for up-cycling antique textiles. The traditional cultures of the world hold wisdom we can learn from if we take the time to understand or participate in their rituals and practices.
The idea behind our artisanal collections is to translate the concept of craft into a contemporary context through artisan and fair trade projects. This is our way of supporting the indigenous communities we work with to help keep their traditions alive and share their practices with a new audience. It’s a valuing of tradition while looking towards the future.
As a brand, our aesthetic integrates this balance of artistry and modernity, which is really just a reflection of our own personal style, informed a lot by our travels.
DREAMING UP NAGNATA
It wasn’t about jumping on the ‘activewear trend’, I hadn’t even heard of that phrase. I was wearing vintage t-shirts and soft ribs and knits to yoga practice because I didn’t like the feel of restrictive sportswear or synthetic fibres. I also didn’t like to look the same as everyone else dressed in shiny black lycra!
This is where the development process began. I wanted to create contemporary high-end garments that were made sustainably and would offer support while remaining breathable and non-restrictive throughout your practice. And design transitional fashion styles you could wear studio-to-street. My starting point for construction references were vintage knitted-retro swimsuits from the 1920s I’d found years before on sourcing trips.
We wanted to incorporate high-end fashion constructions with contemporary sportswear appeal and decided we could achieve this by constructing the garments as fully-fashioned knitwear pieces. This would also eliminate any yarn wastage from the production process. It took a long time to develop the knit constructions and we did need to weigh up different paths for sustainability. We decided it was most important to us to use certified organic cotton and a ‘no wastage’ approach. I avoided the standard cut-and-sew process used for most organic cotton ‘eco’ jersey yoga-wear, because it wastes so much fabric.
As most people aren’t aware of the wastage in regular cut and sew production I needed to make sure our hand-feel and design was exceptional so people would recognise the difference in quality and the sustainable aspect is just our social responsibility as designers.
SISTER POWER DRIVING THE BRAND
We have an incredibly supportive family and when Hannah joined NAGNATA a year ago, our parents thought it was a great idea (maybe because she’s the more sensible one and a lot better with money!). Working alongside my sister is a dream as we work so well creatively together and just get each other in that way only sisters do.
Han has a fine arts degree and is a screen-printer so she now manages all our artisan projects while I focus on the fashion collections, creative direction and strategy. Han’s also a photographer so she shoots our editorials and I style. We still collaborate with our photographer friends but we’re able to do a lot more now it’s all in-house.
The philanthropic work we’ve started doing with NAGNATA through our artisan projects is the work we hold close to our hearts, so it will be really special as we continue to grow this aspect of the brand together. We have some exciting projects in mind for end of this year that will be even closer to home – so stay tuned!
THE CHALLENGES AND SACRIFICES INVOLVED
I would say our biggest challenge has been self-funding the business and being able to give the brand the time it needs. Until recently, my sister and I have both been working full time jobs, Han as a textile designer and myself a fashion designer for other brands while we fund our own. It has been a demanding workload with late nights and weekends working on NAGNATA and then finding time for our relationships and friends.
We have had to make sacrifices for sure, some of which I’m only realising in hindsight (always a beautiful thing). We feel like we’ve been permanently sleep-deprived for the last year, but this is the nature of starting your own business (or having a baby!) and fashion has a lot of upfront-costs so unless you have external investors it’s the way it is.
We self-funded and loaned to cover production costs of our movement-knitwear collection. It was a substantial (and slightly scary) investment for us, so I had to be certain our product and concept was good, really good! I’ve definitely stressed out over whether the collection was ‘there yet’ and if people would ‘get it’ but there comes a point where you just need to follow your instinct and commit to it.
I’ve had to practice patience, as admittedly I’m very impatient, and things moved way slower than I’d envisioned! We changed suppliers 3 times, first trying to produce in Australia then forced to go off-shore to China to mills more technically innovative.
Working as a designer involves so much problem solving – the ideas are the easy part, making it is the challenge and where you test your skills and creativity in a different way.
DEDICATION TO THE VISION
Yes, there’s been tears, stress, doubt, and a little bit of fear, mainly financially. But I think that comes with building any business from the ground up, there’s always risk involved, unless you’re the lucky few to be handed a wad of money to just ‘give it a go’.
"I believe if you’ve created something with authenticity, integrity and you and people around you believe in it (we had our friends wear-testing our gear before taking the plunge into production) and most importantly you’re willing to work hard, then success in some form will come from it."
That – and a smart business plan, with a back-up strategy if that plan doesn’t work – because likely it won’t!
OWNING A CONSCIOUS BUSINESS [AND IT'S MESSAGE]
Owning your own brand, or any business, is a powerful way to make a difference in the world – for the better or worse. I know this is an obvious statement, you just need to look at the corruption that takes place between oil companies, banks and governments or pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment. There are endless examples of these large corporations using their power against the greater good of the people and their customers, driven by money and greed. It feels like the world is slowly waking up and people are tired of being controlled, we are asking more questions and becoming more informed. As consumers we are recognising our power is in where we choose to place our money.
But I can’t rant on about oil and coal companies, as fast fashion is the second dirtiest industry after these guys in terms of pollutants. And the statistics of how many kg of clothes and textiles end up in landfill each year is horrific. The fashion industry is incredibly wasteful. As Vivienne Westwood famously said “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes.” This is true sustainability!
Alongside developing a premium product designed for longevity, we chose to use certified organic cotton in our NAGNATA movement-knitwear collection. Organic cotton is almost double the price for the yarn, because conventionally grown cotton uses pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides on the crops so it’s cheaper to grow.
Not only do many farmers and their families fall ill, get cancer, or worse – die from the use of these chemicals, but the pharmaceutical companies benefit as they supply both the pesticides AND the drugs to treat the illnesses (how convenient). Not to mention the harm to the factory workers who breathe in these toxic fumes and the wildlife that die from chemicals seeped off into waterways – or us the end consumers, who can experience irritated skin, rashes and even headaches caused by the chemical residue trapped in the threads. This is why we are pro-organic cotton.
What you stand for as a brand is important as essentially you’re building a platform from which to use your voice and communicate with your audience.
Our message is one of women’s empowerment and sustainability in fashion, supporting humanitarian work and the freedom of self-expression through fashion and art. We love the work we do, but if we want to keep doing this then we need to look after our environment and the people who make our products.