Meaning sister in Hindi.
A project that tells the story of the connection of women through textiles. Sisters, daughters and protectors of the planet. Hands that learn how to do magic.
BÉHEN is a project created by an avid dreamer that travels to lands beyond the sun, but always leaves a foot in Portugal. Joana Duarte, Fashion Designer, went to London for her master’s degree at Kingston University, and started to fall in love with untold stories. Those with adventures coloured by saris, Berber tribes and other characters who took her with them. She easily gets lost in distant lands of dreams and lets herself go by songs from other countries and fabrics that travel the world. Today, she focuses on making garments with old bedspreads and all the other fabrics she can find in her grandmother’s trunk.
Based in sunny Portugal but firstly imagined in India, BÉHEN believes in fashion being wasteless and in one-off clothes made of antique textiles. A brand born to be a storyteller, it tells the tales of women singing in Hindi and dancing under Rajasthan’s sun. Women who step on the Portuguese sidewalk with ‘saudade’ on their chest. Women who saw the sunrise in Syria but don’t close their eyes to darkness. Women who want to change the world. Clothes made ethically by women communities around the world and that support Syrian boys and girls' education.
By working with small communities we are transferring the money that usually goes to the bigger production facilities to smaller businesses which have the same skills but that stay in the dark precisely because of their size. At BÉHEN, we also privilege quality over quantity and collaborating with smaller producers means we can maintain a limited and unique range while having bigger quality control. Furthermore, having a relationship with the people who make our products is one of our core values. We believe that fashion became atomized, losing its essence and its power to connect people. Our mission is to bring people back together and we truly believe that fashion can do it.
The world is big, or at least big enough to have several marginalised communities. We understand that fashion can exacerbate this by means of environmental and socioeconomic exploitation as well as cultural appropriation, but we're also aware that fashion can be a force for good. Instead of “stealing” inspiration, it could actually work with artisanal communities to develop an authentic product that can allow them to live off their craft. At BÉHEN, we produce in various places and communities because we trust that they all offer something different and that there is always something new to learn. However, curiosity can kill the cat and, being aware of this, we want to choose where we produce very carefully so it can benefit both parties in the long-run and avoid a one-time order that will not benefit the community nor the artisan at all. That is why we assess whether we can commit to and benefit the new place or community, by aiming to keep the number of places we work with to a very restricted group and carefully analysing every new addition.
We currently produce in Portugal. Not only do we work with several ateliers in the district of Lisbon — Madalena Toscany, a small atelier in Aveiras de Cima, being one of them — but we also partner with the Aga Khan Foundation (Lisbon and Sintra) to work with unemployed women who are receiving professional training in sewing. Moreover, we make sure to collaborate with other projects with similar mindsets, such as Cooperativa de Valorização de Resíduos from São Tomé e Príncipe.
Fashion can be a vehicle for positive change and BÉHEN wants to become a role model for the fashion industry. How? By proving that, through the use of antique textiles and the ethical production with local communities, it is possible to create design pieces without harming the planet. It is known that creating cloth from scratch requires agriculture as well as fabric production and dyeing, but these stages have massive CO2 emissions, water consumption, pesticides and other harmful chemicals associated with them. The truth is that nothing is 100% sustainable, but the good news is that antique textiles are everywhere and most times not even in use. Allowing us to make the most of our clothes, they sound like a pretty good option, right?
All over the world! But mostly in Portugal. We buy our antique textiles directly from small sellers at flea markets, antique shops, etc.
Rejected garments play a huge part in waste production and they emerge when quantity trumps quality. Fashion can never be sustainable (even with sustainable textiles) if the clothes are mass-produced. This is the reason BÉHEN only works with unique fabrics and small quantities of pre-order pieces. We believe that special clothes will always have a special place in someone's heart, no matter the time it takes to produce them.
Joana met this family four years ago while doing online volunteering for an international organisation. After the programme, she decided to continue helping the family independently and remotely. She communicates with them daily through WhatsApp or Facebook and for more detailed conversations she has the help of a translator. The family fled from Syria almost six years ago and today they are living in Lebanon, in an improvised home (more like a tent) near a refugee camp. When Joana met them, the children were not attending school, as the family could not afford it. Now, Marwa (16), Khaled (13) and Mona (11) are attending an official school in Lebanon. They are a big family of seven: the mother, Amina; the father, Kassem; Halima, the oldest (18), who is studying to be a hairdresser; Marwa (16), who wants to be a nurse; Khaled (13), an engineer; Mona (11), a doctor; and the youngest, Mariam (3). 5% of all our sales contribute to their education.