Winter action sport such as Snowboarding has its roots in street culture (skateboarding, surfing). However, materials used in snowboarding & skiing outerwear are driven not just by aesthetics or functional needs, but also by very high standards of sustainability !
Ashish Ahlawat, our next pathbreaker, Head of R&D at Dope & Montec (Sweden), works on development of high performance, high quality ski/snowboarding outerwear in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
Ashish talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his transition from the world of design focused clothing to the world of durable/high performance functional clothing with an eye on sustainability.
For students, while design and aesthetics are still very important aspects of a garment, the clothing should also fulfil its main purpose and do so in the most sustainable way !
Ashish, what were your early years like?
I grew up in a city called Meerut in Northern India. Meerut is 2 hours from Capital Delhi and even though it is a city of over 1 million people, it still feels quite small. Coming from a middle class family, I went to an English school and graduated with a science Major in 2003. In my school days, I used to play a lot of cricket (I grew up playing with Parveen Kumar, who eventually played for India) and one thing was clear to me, that I was not going to be an Engineer or a Doctor like every one of my classmates. Though I loved science for its ability to explain the world around us, i wanted to focus more on applying science to creative thinking (be it art or even designing a new product).
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my B.A honors in Fashion Design and Technology at Pearl Academy of Fashion in Delhi and Post Graduate Diploma in Pattern Making and Styling from Accademia d’Alta Moda, KOEFIA in Rome, Italy.
Tell us, what were the influences that spurred you to take up such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I always wanted to work in a creative field. So, after talking to a cousin of mine who studied at NIFT and was doing well as a clothing designer, I decided to try getting into the clothing business and that’s when I applied (and somehow managed to get in) for the Fashion Design course at Pearl Academy. The list of people who influenced me and my career is long, but they have evolved from iconic designers like John Galliano and Alexander Mcqueen during my college days, to eventually athletes (since the last 11 years I have worked in clothing for outdoor activities) like Shaun White, Mark Mcmorris, Anna Gasser (for Snowboarding) and companies like Patagonia, Burton etc.
It is very important to have good mentors in one’s career, and one needs to choose mentors who can provide new contexts and insights. In short, they should be people who can help you become a more complete professional and a human being. I have had some very good mentors over the years and without them, I wouldn’t have been able to navigate the cultural and professional differences between India and US/Europe.
Moving to the US and getting a job at Burton Snowboards was the most important event, and then moving to Sweden last August was another big event.
At Burton, I first worked as a fabric developer and eventually progressed to the role of Materials Manager. During this time, I started to get passionate about sustainability in the clothing industry (mainly due to very high sustainability goals set by the Burton leadership team). I learnt and saw first hand the environmental impact of the clothing industry (20% of the world’s water is used by clothing industry which is also responsible for 3% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide) and it was then that I started to really push hard on driving development and production of fabrics and trims in the most sustainable way possible.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I was actually selected for the Post Grad course at Central Saint Martins (one of the best design colleges) in London in 2007. But due to lack of appropriate funds, my student visa was rejected. I decided to wait and find another good college which I could afford and that’s when I learnt about KOEFIA. It is a small but niche college in the heart of Rome with a focus on traditional haute couture garment construction techniques and pattern making. Italy is truly one of the best places to study design and fashion due to their long history of being one of the best fashion hubs of the world.
Even though my education was very design focused, I was always interested in the technology side of clothing. After college in India and Italy, I worked under a couple of very good/inspiring designers in India and in Italy.
However, the fashion industry (especially 10-12 years ago) has some major drawbacks like, not paying enough salary to new employees, long and unsustainable working hours etc. After working in Italy, I decided to change course and do something more meaningful while having a career path. In India, i had previously worked at a big export house called Jaipur Polo Company, who have their own textile mill and are one of the biggest manufacturers of horse riding apparel. This is where I got interested in functional clothing.
Functional clothing focuses on protection from elements like water, wind, air etc. In functional clothing, forms follows function. Design is still very very important but the garment needs to maintain its main purpose of protecting the customer against elements.
That’s when I started applying for jobs in outdoor/activewear companies and luckily got an opportunity at Burton Snowboards in 2011 and that opportunity put me on a path to work on durable/high performance clothing, using which people can stay outdoors for longer times and have new great experiences.
Burton is focused on the winter action sport market like snowboarding. Snowboarding outerwear has always been more design forward than conventional outerwear because snowboarding has roots in street culture like skateboarding, surfing. I got to work (in a team) on very interesting and challenging projects like snowboarding uniforms for the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, collaborations for Burton x L.A.M.B collection, Burton x Vogue x Off-White collection etc while also working on very technical products built for extreme backcountry usage (Goretex 3L jackets, light but very warm insulators, highly functional base layer etc). However no matter how much a material is driven by aesthetic or functional needs, it will always need to meet very high standards of sustainability and quality while maintaining the business intent (it needs to be affordable for the end consumer depending on end use).
How did you get your first break?
I got my first job at Rana Gill (Indian Designer) through campus placement at Pearl Academy. However before that, I did an internship with Nitin Bal Chauhan (a very inspiring Indian Designer) during my college days and it helped me really understand the design side of clothing.
When i moved to US from Italy, I did internships for first 8 months and then Burton hired me.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Some of the biggest challenges I faced were cultural challenges. Moving from Meerut to Delhi to study Fashion Design was a very big change. I had to learn literally everything from dressing style to speaking English, to fitting in and thriving in the new environment; but thanks to some very good friends I made, I managed to adapt and eventually do well in college. The key is to not give up and ensure that you build your circle of friends who are not like you, so they can show you and teach you new ways of thinking and living.
Similarly, it was really hard for me to live and work in the US in the beginning due to cultural differences, but again, I reached out to people who I found inspiring and these people helped me make the transition and fit into the new culture.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role
When I left Italy in 2010, I promised myself that someday I will work in Europe. Europe has a very diverse culture. Sweden in particular always fascinated me in terms of their socialist/capitalist model (free health care, worker rights protection etc) and when the opportunity came, I decided to take it. I also have two kids and I think it is very good for them to live in a new culture and push themselves to fit in a new society while they are still young. As for language, pretty much everyone speaks good english (but i will still start learning Swedish in near future).
I work for a company called Ridestore which owns two growing brands- Dope and Montec. The main focus is on ski/snowboarding outerwear though we also have a growing business in outdoor garments like fleece, hiking pants, baselayer etc.
I work as Head of R&D with a main focus on fabric and trim development and innovation. This job requires in-depth knowledge of technical fabrics and garment construction along with supply chain, quality and sustainability requirements. I gained these skills through both formal education and professional experience. It’s also very important to continue to learn new developments happening in Industry. I mostly work with Asian suppliers and partners. My typical day is split half and half between talking/working with Asian partners and forming new plans/processes with the team in the office. I love my job as we are pushing to make high performance, high quality products in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Also it’s very rewarding to work with a great team.
How does your work benefit society?
I get to work on clothing in which people enjoy fun outdoor sports like skiing and snowboarding along with hiking and biking. These are not fast, fashion clothing but durable high quality clothing which is made using the most sustainable materials (recycled polyester, organic cotton made using least harmful chemistry). It is very rewarding to see people having fun wearing these garments while knowing they will last for a long time.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
It was my work on the fabric of the 2018 Winter Olympics snowboarding uniform. The design direction was to develop a waterproof/breathable fabric which needed to have a very unique metallic shine in order to look like a spacesuit. After almost 1 year of work, we managed to meet the design intent and it was amazing to see snowboarders wearing these garments while getting Olympics gold medals.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Don’t follow the same path which everyone else is following. Don’t be afraid to try new things and fail. Fail fast and fail often- that’s how you will learn the most. Last but not the least, never give up.
I will be spending the rest of my career in the outdoor industry and I am looking forward to continuing to push sustainability and quality while being part of making best in class products.