How This Innovative Entrepreneur is Bringing Bangladesh's Forgotten Textiles To The World
Mahfuzul Karim is doing it all. University student by day, streetwear innovator by night - his days are filled with lectures, developing unique business strategies and spending countless hours building Bangladesh’s most promising streetwear brand, Dacca. What started as a dream in 2018, within 2 years, Mahfuzul and his partner in crime, Jobyaed Uddin successfully merged reviving traditional Bengali craftsmanship with high street fashion to create an unique lifestyle experience.
“ I want to continuously serve the Bengali people” , he says. “ As Bengalis, we grow up consuming Indian and Pakistani culture, but we have little pride or deep knowledge of our own traditions. It’s as if we are ashamed of our heritage because we fear we won’t be accepted. I want to change that. I want to make Bangladeshi culture a leading example to the world.”
“We as Bangladeshis need to show how our culture can be a strength to the world.”
That’s why Mahfuzul launched Dacca. He knew that to make this dream a reality, not only did he need to invest in Bangladeshi craftsmanship, but he also needed to attract the right audience. And streetwear was an untapped market in Bangladesh with a huge amount of potential.
Urban fashion was a movement that started within the California surf and skate communities of the ‘80s and exploded in the ‘90s. The casual, comfortable clothes were analogous to an artist’s street art or a hip-hop artist’s lyrics. The consumer had much power in determining the design and the artist’s streetwear created a sense of community among patrons. Over the past few years, streetwear has made a huge comeback, starting in Los Angeles.
And this time everybody was donning it, from women to males to even babies. Mahfuzul knew that he was onto something. To show the beauty and strength of Bengali culture, everyone should experience it. The re-emergence of a highly in-demand industry with new untapped user personas would give Dacca the opportunity to uniquely position itself as a unisex, South Asian, urban streetwear phenomenon.
“We are not here to separate genders. Fashion is not associated with gender.” he says. “That’s why we are focused on creating accessible fashion for all. “
“Fashion is your own choice - you should be allowed to experience it without any societal boundaries or limits.”
So one night, they decided to take the plunge.
As always money was the biggest blocker. “ I invested all my money from my savings, whilst Jobayed invested all of his scholarship winnings. I even asked my mom to be an early investor” he says. “What motivated us were our research findings. There were many endangered textile arts produced by the most skilled Bangaldeshi artisans, but no one knew anything about them.
“Bangladesh is only known for cheap garment labor. This needs to change. The perception needs to shift.”
The money wasn’t merely to launch Dacca, it was to also change these artisans’ lives and give them the opportunity to share their work with the world. After scrapping the seed amount, Karim and Uddin now had to find artisans who would agree to work with them.
The first collection was all about Nakshi Kantha and block print. Nakshi Kantha ( `/ nok-she-kan-tha/) is a centuries old tradition of embroidering quilts with a kantha or running stitch. Women primarily practiced it to create artistic embroidered blankets, quilts and pillow covers for their families. But now, Mahfuzul and Joyabed wanted to showcase it on sweatshirts.
They scoured the city. “We first went to Puran Dhaka (Old Dhaka), and then to Jamalpur.” Jamalpur is a district famous for Nakshi kantha. After visiting multiple villages and towns in Jamalpur and persuading many women artisans, they found some professionals who were willing to work on the new sweatshirt medium.
After witnessing the skills of the artisans, Mafuzul and Jobayed got to work. They presented their designs to the artisans and attempted to find ways to make nakshi kantha pop on the urban fabric. After months and months of improvising, they found that block print would be the perfect base to enhance the beauty of nakshi kantha.
Yet, they came across another hurdle. They needed a factory that would supply the garments for their sweatshirt.
“The garment industry in Bangladesh is vast and at that time, we had insufficient knowledge. We are simply trying to not get conned.” Trust and honesty are essential virtues to Mahfuzul. After 5 to 6 months of finding nakshi kantha artisans and working with factories in Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj, it seemed like there were too many options. Finally, they had a breakthrough. Karim got in touch with a friend of his brother, who operated a garment factory of his own. “ I trusted my brother and, therefore, trusted his choice of friends.” Having someone who was close to his family solidified his decision to go forth with finally manufacturing the product.
After almost half a year of testing and research , Mahfuzul and Jobayed finally developed Volume 1, Dacca’s principal collection celebrating the beauty of Bengali craftsmanship. Each sweatshirt was imprinted with vibrant block prints and hand stitched with gorgeous nakshi-kantha accents.
“ This was all possible due to the faith our mothers had in us”, he says. “My mother supported me and my dream even before seeing a prototype. She believed in me with so much ferocity, I can’t thank her enough. "
“She had enormous faith in me, she was my biggest supporter. Her unending confidence in me kept me going.”
Building a business is not a walk in the park, but the duality of being an undergrad student presents its own set of challenges. Whilst sourcing artisans for Volume 1, Mahfuzul was still a university student , trying to attend lectures and finish his assignments on time. But he didn’t feel fulfilled. “I wasn’t actively learning anything and I didn’t feel challenged. The Bangladeshi education system is hyper-focused on academics, but it doesn’t care about the potential of the individual. ”
So he applied to the US, where his older brother resides. “I wanted to explore Computer Science and I also wanted to stay close to my brother. So I took my shot and applied to a few places in Texas and Oklahoma.” It paid off. Big time. Mahfuzul not only gained admission to the University of Central Oklahoma, but he also got awarded a prestigious scholarship to study Electrical Engineering.
“Although I got a once-in-a lifetime opportunity, making the final decision was tough. I was trying to build Dacca and was worried what would become of my vision if I left Bangladesh. Simultaneously, my parents were worried whether I could handle the culture shock of the US. It was the toughest year I have experienced.”
Instead of pressuring himself, Mahfuzul gave himself time. A full year to build Dacca, stabilize his vision and make an informed decision to move to the US. “Always give yourself time and talk to yourself. Figure out what exactly you want and how you want to achieve it. This will help you take control of your life.”
The more time he gave himself, the more he realized that studying the US would give him the opportunity to forge Dacca ‘s vision beyond the borders and share Bangladeshi culture to the diaspora abroad. He was off to make it happen.
Moving to Oklahoma was a huge change. Suddenly, Mahfuzul was an international student and an entrepreneur, striving to lead a distributed team. But no challenge was too big for him. Jobayed took over the design aspects of Dacca, Mahfuzul brought on another friend to drive the floor operations in Bangladesh, and he started focusing on building Volume 2 and the international strategy.
Last October, Dacca launched their highly anticipated Volume 2 collection, honoring the beautiful tradition of Khadi and decontextualizing it into oversized graphic tees with renaissance art.
“Khadi can be done in many ways. We are trying to bring back ancient techniques and marry them into modern everyday life.”
Just like Volume 1, Dacca looked to the artisans to develop their latest collection. “There are few artisans working on handwoven Khadi. It took us 2 months to find them, and we found only two people who were experts and deep-rooted in the practice. It's an art that is endangered and rare. We need to showcase it and make it known to the world”, he reminisces. To complement the handwoven Khadi patches, Jobayed, the design lead of Dacca, found fine prints of 19th century paintings by Hemen Majumdar and Abanindranath Tagore.
“We wanted to showcase the beauty of the Bengali renaissance and the Bengali life 200 years ago on handwoven Khadi patches” The result is provocative. The Khadi collection is spectacular and unique, honoring avant-garde innovation and ancient Khadi techniques whilst staying true to the high street aesthetic.
“Getting Volume 2 off the ground was not easy. Covid impacted us a lot. For 10 weeks, all our factories were closed, and we definitely felt stuck. But it's important to keep moving forward. We kept on talking through the designs and focusing on our next steps so that when restrictions are lifted, we can hit the ground running.”
What shines through Volume 2 is Dacca’s appreciation for its skilled Khadi artisans and its commitment to sustainability. In a recent Instagram post, they stated, “Dacca's philosophy has never been mass production. Each new piece of clothing increases the count of carbon in the atmosphere. Keeping our carbon footprint as minimum as possible is a perpetual part of Dacca's conscience.”
It’s an honorable goal which Mahfuzul has been deeply committed to through all the collections. When I ask him how becoming an entrepreneur has changed the relationship with himself , he says “I don't consider myself as an entrepreneur- it's just a label. I just want to keep on working on my vision. It’s hard to balance it with my studies, but this is what I want to be doing. I want to go back to Bangladesh and continue to serve my people and my culture.”
“ I want to keep on learning, meeting diverse people and understanding from diverse opinions.”
As our interview winds down, I can’t help but think what a wild ride it has been for Mahfuzul - from starting an innovative streetwear brand, to moving to the US , to balancing his studies whilst leading a distributed team. His resilience, resourcefulness and creativity reminds us all of the importance of having a solidified vision that can guide us through obstacles.
“Always try to talk to different people and learn from them. At the same time, keep on talking to yourself to finalize your vision. We all have a path. We all have the power to take control and achieve our dreams.”
Dacca is currently shipping worldwide. Check out their latest collection at https://fromdacca.com/ and follow them @fromdacca.