Meet Rokaiya Ahmed Purna, the young designer who turned global supply chain practices on its head.
‘Made in Bangladesh’ is a globally recognised label stuck on the inside of apparels, thanks largely to international brands’ reliance on the country’s competitive labour market. But these clothes are mostly conceptualised and designed in the West.
But how about turning the tables around and conceptualising and designing something in Bangladesh and making it in the West?
That is what young Bangladeshi designer Rokaiya Ahmed Purna was able to achieve. She recently collaborated with German sneaker label Ekn Footwear and designed a sneaker titled ‘Kamthala.’
Named after Bangladesh’s national fruit – the jackfruit, the Kamthala makes a bold statement to the international apparel industry to rethink how it works with the Global South, turning the usual ‘designed in the Global North, manufactured in the Global South’ paradigm on its head.
The idea behind the shoe is to create a ‘sneaker as a symbol of respect’ – aiming to reverse some of the unethical supply chain practices, pollution and exploitation that have been synonymous with the apparel industry for decades, and tapping into younger generations’ appetite for meaningful change, not just greenwashing.
“We have become used to the term ‘Made in Bangladesh’ not ‘Designed in Bangladesh’. But the new generation of Bangladeshis is starting to think differently and act differently. And as part of this generation, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to create change. I’m living the dream of so many people, so it’s an opportunity which comes with a lot of responsibility,” Rokaiya Ahmed Purna told The Business Standard.
Kamthala is entirely vegan, made from recycled faux leather and neoprene. It features a wedge sole and yellow colour accents in the heel that have been inspired by a ripe jackfruit.
“My own roots and childhood memories also influence my designs. The inspiration for the Ekn Kamthala comes from jackfruit, the national fruit of Bangladesh, which I had a deep relationship with as a child. There was a tree right in front of my house where I would play, draw, and nap under,” explained Rokaiya.
Noel Klein-Reesink, who spent years looking for the ideal skate shoe and has worked for major businesses in the sporting goods market, launched Ekn Footwear GmbH in 2015. Through his experiences with big brands, he saw the critical need for fashionable, high-quality, and environmentally friendly footwear. The “Made in Friendship” label’s guiding principle is striving to combat unequal and harmful production methods.
All of Ekn’s shoes are produced in Portugal from sustainable materials, with the aim of providing high-quality footwear without the social and environmental harm caused by similar manufacturers. The unisex sneaker is available in sizes 36 to 46 and costs 200 Euros (approximately $218 or Tk24,000). “The sneakers sold out like hotcakes. We had to save some pieces for future reference,” added Rokaiya.
From her very childhood, Rokaiya was a rebel against what is conventional in society.
“I never liked the concept of mainstream studies and the tendency to memorise everything from textbooks. Painting and colours were my very own mode of self-expression. In fact, to date, colour helps me in remembering things,” she said.
Against her family’s wishes, she decided to study fashion design and followed her passion. She finished her graduation from BGMEA University in 2018.
Rokaiya’s talents and hard work got recognition since her undergraduate days. In 2015, when she was just a sophomore, she was awarded in the Denim and Jeans International Show for the cap she designed for the event. Awards started coming in a flurry after that.
Previously, Rokaiya worked for Mark and Spencer as a full-time garment technologist, and won a team award there as well. She received the ‘Entrepreneurial Prize’ at the International Emerging Designer Award in New Zealand. In the show, the designer showcased a collection featuring the fabric heritage of the ethnic minority community of the country. In an effort to encourage those from her native country who might want to follow in her footsteps and pursue a career in fashion or the visual arts, Rokaiya has also made it her life’s mission to support ethnic and minority women’s empowerment through skill development training. Rokaiya’s work, in tune with her ethos, earned her the entrepreneurial award.
She is now a UNESCO fair cultural expert from the UNESCO council of Germany. She was also recently featured in Forbes as one of South Asia’s leading fashion designers from Bangladesh.
Rokaiya specialises in indigenous fabric and incorporates elements of her cultural heritage into each of her creations. This is best seen in her own “RAP” label, which has evolved into much more than just a place to find timeless Bangladeshi culture fusion and haute couture.
The designer was recognised for reinventing Bangladeshi fashion on the global arena after showcasing her exquisite collection at Russia’s Fashion Week in 2019 with her cultural fabric, folk motifs, and textiles that ooze her country’s heritage and fascinating culture.
In the same year, the German brand Ekn reached out to her for collaboration on Instagram. It took them about three years to execute the project.
“The brand gave me the liberty to incorporate local inspiration in my own way, and I utilised every bit of this opportunity. This was my first time designing a shoe, and I put my heart and soul into it. I submitted around a hundred designs, and finally, Kamlatha got selected,” she said.
Rokaiya also shares that she did not take what she was offered as a financial compensation for this project. “This entire thing was less about the money and more about making a change in society, about setting an example for young designers of the country,” she said.
Rokaiya will soon launch a platform for future Bangladeshi designers from where their designs will be showcased and promoted. This platform promises to open new avenues for designers. Ekn will also be partially involved in this project and profits made from the sales of Kamthala will be invested to build this platform.