He introduces himself as an activist, an artist and a shepherd. It is easy to be misled by his down-to-earth demeanour and warm, shy, man-next-door smile. But, 41-year-old Babar Afzal from India was in London on serious business; to share a platform with the world’s greatest disruptive minds, in Wired 2016 held at the London Tobacco Dock recently.
Babar has won a fellowship and an Award for being among the top global geniuses who abandoned their comfort zone to explore future trends.
A recognised Pashmina activist in India, Babar shared a platform with prodigies like Thor Bjorgolfsson, Mustafa Suleyman and Taavet Hinrikus by showcasing his art, highlighting core issues of pashmina, the environmental hazards of climate change in the Himalayan region of Leh-Ladakh and the threats of fake pashmina being smuggled by China.
“I help individuals, designers, brands and organisations source the finest and purest pashmina fabric and art to the world; save a specie (exotic pashmina goats) and community (shepherds), their culture (weavers, artists) and the eco-system of the Himalayas,” says Babar.
“There is a great demand for luxury products globally. And with the Make in India campaign, we see that pashmina is the only true luxury product of India,” he adds.
Babar quit his comfortable Silicon Valley career as a Technology Analyst, Business Consultant and Information Security Architect in McKinsey six years ago, to start his life with the pashmina goat shepherds and nomads in a remote village in Changthan, nearly 400 kilometres away from Leh. Spending time with them was a catharsis for him and he took up art to fight for their cause and work for their upkeep and preservation.
Over the years he held several impactful conferences, dismantled pashmina nexus, sued over 150 fake pashmina dealers and challenged Indian corporate honchos like Kumaramangalam Birla for airing misleading adverts on pashmina.
His work won him five National Awards, including the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Excellence, Dr BR Ambedkar and the Bharat Gaurav Awards. He has also been profiled by the BBC, TIME magazine, CNN and Bloomberg Global for using art as a centrepiece to reposition pashmina on the global platform.
London gave him an opportunity to showcase traditional Indian art on a global platform. “I have been approached for partnerships to exhibit in Europe and the US, but I will only partner with people who are sensitive towards the welfare programmes for the community because mine is a social enterprise, not a business,” says Babar.
“My wife Henna and I are the co-founders of this project. My wife and I registered a not for profit organisation with the name ‘KASHMIRINK Foundation’.”
Through this organisation, the Afzals are looking for forward thinking entrepreneurs as retail partners across India and over 20 countries; comrades who are excited to be a part of the luxury and fashion retail industry.
“We have worked out a simple format of association at this stage. We are supplying purest pashmina to our partners against a security deposit and our share of profits comes after the sale happens.
“We have created a standard layout and model for the retail spaces 500 / 1,000 / 5,000 Sq.ft. with standard operating procedures. Anyone who wants to partner in a particular territory can contact us. Every product sold by our partners would carry a three-tier authentication certificate for purity and all the pashmina sold will be Cancer Free,” he says.
Because of the fascination with this fibre and the craft, Babar spent years learning the intricate sozni (sui or needle) work on pashmina. “With my background as an abstract artist, I now paint in pashmina with needle work. Becoming a shepherd was the first challenge and then learning the intricate sozni work on pashmina was the next. I am happy that I have built the foundation for my long term role in this industry.”
That is a lot of work to take on for a single person, but he is willing to do so because he firmly believes that the Himalayan community is the original stakeholder in the Global Luxury and Fashion Industry and is making powerful attempts to link these communities and their work to global industries and the fashion elite.
“I want to become the sourcing point for authentic pashmina by reaching out to top global designers, clothing brands and retailers. The market is being bombed by fake products that are directly affecting the centuries-old art form and the community at large.”
Some of his art pieces have been unofficially rated to fetch around £90,000 in the UK market. These were pieces that took nearly a decade for the weavers to complete. An authentic pashmina shawl (depending on design and workmanship) could cost around £40,000 in the UK.
According to him, the symbolism of the Himalayan shepherds and nomads hold the secret of handling the most important aspects of life – money, health, relationships and happiness. It was this belief that made him start the Pashmina Goat project www.pashminagoat.org.
The core idea of the project is to fight for justice and enhance the lives of 50,000 shepherds, over 3,00,000 craftsmen and 2,00,000 pashmina goats by creating a retail fair trade platform.
“We are linking the Shepherds and Nomads and Weavers directly with the Luxury and Fashion Industry of the world so that they get their due share/stake in the industry,” says Babar.
He lives away from his family in Jammu and like a doting father, misses his 11-year-old daughter Alhana, proudly declaring that she is extremely aware and conscious about the hazards of global warming and he hopes “she turns up to be a good citizen of the world”.
He signs off philosophically, stating that the world needs to move towards spiritualism to survive the turmoil it faces. “We all have a right to seek and discover. For when we seek, we embark on a journey into our soul or through this world, or both. And it is our journey that defines our life.”
- Pashmina comes from the Persian word ‘pashm’ that means wool. Real pashmina wool comes from Changthani goats in the Himalayas and dates back to the 14th century.
- Napolean’s 18th century French Campaign in Egypt brought pashmina to Paris.
- Princess Josephine started wearing pashmina style shoulder shawl and it continues to be a fashion statement in elite circles in France.
“We are working on building the Management Team comprising a former creative head of Facebook, an Investment Banker from the UK, an International Journalist and Communications Specialist, a Harvard Alumni and Business Strategist and a Luxury Retail Expert”