How juju wove national identity into a t-shirt
T-shirts with local designs have been around for a while now – there’s never been a dearth of ironic messages and images on t-shirts. But no one’s done it like Juju T-shirts. With an academic background in art and a strong belief in the youth’s love for their country, its safe to say that Juju T-shirts Founder Pradeep Man Shakya has transformed the humble t-shirt.
Pradeep Man Shakya, owner of Juju T-Shirts, believes t-shirts can be more than just something to cover the skin. He started Juju T-shirts with the aim of doing more with t-shirts. “We try to promote our culture, our heritage. We want to promote Nepal. We want to increase respect for Nepal and Nepalese, to make Nepalese feel proud of their roots,” he says.
Nepal’s t-shirt market is dominated by imported products. Mr. Shakya says imported t-shirts are mere products. As an artist by training, even a t-shirt should carry a meaning, a message, he says. “The imported t-shirts that flood our markets do not reflect any of our values and culture. They have no connection with our roots.” That is a gap that he hopes to fill with Juju T-shirts. When he describes the initial idea for creating the t-shirt brand, it sounds like a nationalistic mission. “I wanted the youth to get a feel of their national identity,” he says
But even if youths respond to a call for patriotism, they necessarily do not want to do it by buying t-shirts. What makes Juju T-shirts appealing? Mr. Shakya says it is the price. “The youth of Nepal do not have great buying power, so we have made every effort to produce t-shirts that are affordable. We use pure cotton. That helps to keep the prices fairly low,” he explains. Mr. Shakya would have liked to create t-shirts from material made in Nepal. But that has not been possible owing to the low quality of cotton-knit fabric produced in Nepal. He imports the fabric for his t-shirts from China and India, where better quality fabric is available.
When it comes to quality, Shakya strives to meet international standards. Efforts to ensure high quality begin in the dyeing stage. “Our dyeing process is of international standards. We use only azo-free dyes. Dyes containing azo are banned in the countries of the Europe Union and in Japan. We use reactive dyes, as opposed to the practice of using direct dyes among some producers in Nepal.” Azo is usually present in direct dyes. It is harmful to the skin and is known to even cause skin cancer.
Maintaining a high dyeing standard comes with problems. Discoloration is the biggest one. “Sometimes the color doesn’t spread uniformly and we have to re-dye it. But there is always a chance that it might not come out as desired, in which case we have to discard the material. We don’t compromise on quality. The same procedure is followed for the products, irrespective of whether they will be exported to Japan or sold here in Nepal,” says Mr. Shakya.
Prints, he says, are Juju’s strength. They are certainly the most attractive feature of the t-shirts. In their Jhamsikhel store, here t-shirts with Spiderman swinging across Dharhara, share shelf space with Tintin traveling snugly in a doko, and a Yeti with the caption ‘Catch Me If You Can.’ This unique fusion was what Mr. Shakya was striving for in his products. “Our main theme is fusion. Our Nepali roots reflect in what we create, but it is not only about that. Modern trends and Nepali traditions and heritage merge in our t-shirts.”
Combining Nepali culture with modern trends in itself breaks with tradition. Kayo Siddhi, a graphic artist who is one of several artists working with Juju, says it is about time we use new images when presenting Nepal and its culture. “The Himalayas should not always be the only image that represents Nepal. There should be something new, something Nepalese youths can relate to. That is what we aspire toward here. Our art represents Kathmandu and Nepal.”
Mr. Shakya believes fusion is reality in a society that is evolving as rapidly as Nepal is, while also retaining its customs and traditions. This embracing of the two aspects of modern day Nepal is what he says makes his products popular. “Kayo Siddhi’s designs are all Nepali concepts but they are presented in an entirely modern way. Young people who come here look at his designs, and say, ‘That’s what I was looking for!’”
To deliver such products, Mr. Shakya has a team of five artists that come up with the ideas and concepts that are eventually used on the t-shirts. “Working with several artists allows us to explore and work on different concepts. We spend a lot of time discussing the designs that each of us comes up with,” he says. Working with artists has given him the opportunity to rekindle his love for art. He says that his academic background in art lends him an eye for aesthetics.
Creating the images that are put on t-shirts is the longest phase in the manufacturing process of Juju T-shirts. Once a concept is conceived, the artist and Mr. Shakya work on it continuously until the final design is approved. Some designs are approved after two drafts, others take months. Since most of the designs have a link with aspects or figures of Nepalese history, religion, or culture, there is another facet to designing besides aesthetics. “We strive to make products that are aesthetically appealing,” says Shakya, “but we also need to ensure that the story a t-shirt tells is historically correct.”
Printing the design on a t-shirt is also challenging. Screen printing, the method that Juju T-shirts uses, places certain restrictions on designing. “With screen printing, a design can’t have gradients or use too many colors. That increases the cost. Screen printing is done manually, so the designs need to be simple,” says Siddhi. Keeping the design simple is crucial in order to maintain high quality. “The printing technology in Nepal is too archaic to allow for complex designs. If we go for complex designs, the quality suffers,” Mr. Shakya says, explaining the challenges of his work. To be able to go for complex designs, he is thinking about importing advanced printing machines.
Prints maybe their strength, but the basic element of clothing is design. Another larger team takes care of the fundamental work of tailoring. Mr. Shakya started an apparel company over 20 years ago. One of the assets he developed then was a force of skilled workers. “I used to have nearly 500 workers in my company. We used to supply garments to Gap, Walmart, Kmart, and Starter.” The business suffered when political turmoil spread in Nepal during the civil war. He laments the loss of those workers, especially the tailors. “Juju T-shirts hasn’t been able to increase production because we don’t have enough tailors. We have machines but no tailors. The good tailors are all in the Gulf countries now.”
Even though the brand has been unable to increase production, its popularity has been growing. Although the majority of its buyers are young, it has won some unexpected admirers. The most remarkable example Mr. Shakya remembers is of the seventy-five-year-old man who showed up at the store one day looking for a t-shirt with the print of Matsyendranath. “Some people have said to me, ‘You have not just made clothes. You have made something with a deep meaning.’”
The t-shirts made by Juju carry the images of famous Nepali personalities. There is Narayan Gopal sitting before an old harmonium carries the image of the poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota. Some people, however, have questioned the propriety of the t-shirt carrying Prithivi Narayan Shah’s image. Mr. Shakya is surprised by such a stance. “That image is not about monarchy. Its not a political message. The message is about the need to respect the person who unified Nepal.” He says that he wants to combine business with delivering a message. “Our slogan is ‘Jai Nepal!’ I think everyone should say it. I don’t think there’s a problem in that.”