Passage to India
An effortless clothing line is built around two sisters’ love for heritage Indian textiles
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Jenny Antill
Sisters Erin Breen and Katie McClure never thought they would have a clothing line together, much less one with a connection to India. But after falling in love with the country’s heritage textiles on a trip there, the sisters’ caftan and resort wear brand, Mirth, was born.
“I went to UT and majored in textiles and apparel,” says McClure, “but post-college I veered from that industry and worked in recruiting, events and sales. I always regretted not pursuing a career in the fashion industry and felt the desire to do something creative that also had meaning.”
Breen’s background is in special education and after closing her first business, which provided therapy for children with Autism, she decided to take a trip with her sister. “Traveling in India after closing the clinic, plus my love for caftans is what ignited my desire to delve into the industry.”
We sat down with the designers to talk about Mirth (whose name was born during a laughter-filled elephant ride taken by the sisters), working together and doing business in Texas and India.
Margaret Williams: I have a sister myself and love that you two work together. Is that something you’d thought about doing for a while?
Katie McClure: We certainly never thought we’d have a brand together, design clothing or trek to India for work. It’s all been a crazy adventure. I had been living in Switzerland and Singapore and was traveling in Bali, Nepal and India to find inspiration for what to do next. I fell in love with beautiful artisan textiles and the effortless silhouettes I was seeing. But I couldn’t find a caftan I loved, which is what first sparked the idea. When Erin closed her clinic, it was the perfect timing for her to join me so she could do some soul-seeking of her own.
Erin Breen: When I arrived in India Katie already had the idea brewing. After days spent speaking with locals in the textiles business, we kept saying to each other, “We could really do this!” On this one magical day we went on an elephant ride and couldn’t stop laughing because it felt as if years of puzzle pieces had come together. Hence, Mirth, the name of our company.
MW: After the initial idea, what happened next?
KM: We were starting from the ground up. We had some savings and did almost everything ourselves – which could be frustrating because of the time spent on failing and learning. But in the end, it gave us a deep understanding of every corner of the business.
EB: We spent a couple of years organizing all of the logistics before officially launching in 2016. We had to establish a supply chain, hire a production team and source fabrics that were ethically made – and could be made consistently, with quality control. Social impact is at the heart of what we do.
MW: What does it mean to work with “heritage textiles?”
KM: Many of the textiles are made using techniques that have been around for centuries. The two methods we use are handloom weaving, which comes in many forms based on the region, and hand block printing.
EB: Jamdani is a weaving technique practiced in West Bengal. Weavers in rural villages weave in motifs [“buti”] by hand as the fabric itself is woven—all done by sight. We work with weaving revival projects created specifically to keep these traditions alive and bring work to rural areas. Sadly, mass production techniques have taken over much of the demand for handmade fabrics. MW: Tell me about your production process.
KM: The design process for one season takes over a year and a half and we have about six seasons that we’re working on at once. There are two main parts to the design process: the fabric and the garment.
We design the fabric both in Houston and in India. Sometimes we take an existing design and tweak it, or we come up with a new one. A blockprint, for example, starts with a drawing. A carver carves a wooden teak block by hand. Once we have several blocks and ideas, we travel to India to sample in person. It’s a collaboration with the master printers and they tell us when they don’t like something or think another way will work better. It’s a ton of fun and the end result is rarely what we initially planned—it’s usually better!
EB: It’s a bit of a hodge podge of experimentation and often an accident ends up being the showpiece. In Houston we work with a patternmaker and sample maker. And we also sample directly with our suppliers in Delhi. It allows us to use their technical capabilities, things like embroidery and smocking. We start from many different directions, but somehow it ends up as a cohesive collection.
MW: Highs and lows over the last three years?
EB: A lot of late nights and a lot of self-doubt. There are tough days when we question ourselves. But it’s surreal seeing someone in public wearing our pieces. We don’t think that feeling will ever get old!
KM: Getting our first order from GOOP was a huge moment. Whenever we are in India collaborating with our partners, it reminds us of why we decided to do this. Not only are we getting to dream up and create beautiful garments, but we’re making a visible difference in entire communities because of the job opportunities being created.
EB: Finding inspiration also – when we travel, we always ask drivers for recs. Often they take us to tourist places, but sometimes they deliver us to a gold mine of a shop. We love visiting a group of all-women weavers in Maheshwar. They have a co-op that trains women and allows them to earn a substantial living in a supportive environment. Each region is different and the food is so incredible, too.
MW: How do you find the sweet spot of designs that suit urban dwellers and vacationers alike?
KM: That’s our goal. We create what we want to wear—easy, comfortable, but still chic. We want to create pieces that women can wear all the time, no matter what they’re doing. (OR … no matter where they are.)