Kiran Rai’s favorite fashion houses may include some of the biggest names in the fashion industry: Chanel, Gucci, Chloe. But when it comes to her own designs, Rai’s chief influences are the things she’s most passionate about: peace, social progress, pop culture and her Indian heritage.
Rai, 41, lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and is the creator of Sir Alistair Rai, a rapidly growing fashion brand that promotes non-violence, social awareness, and, naturally, gorgeous design. Sir Alistair Rai’s motto reads, “Beauty relies on truth, wear your truth,” and Rai believes in it wholeheartedly.
After years of working in the corporate sector for companies like Disney and Gap, Inc., Rai left retail and turned to fashion. “I’ve always found that it was my creative outlet,” she says. In December 2005, Rai decided to open her own distinctive line. Choosing not to go the straightforward eponymous route, she combined her last name with the regal Alistair (chosen at random) and the knightly title “sir” to pay homage to England, her birthplace.
But there’s more to Rai than just her Indian background. Her dedication to peace, progress and education means that she literally wears her politics on her sleeve, designing T-shirts emblazoned with “Make Love Not War” and “Obama For Change,” the latter of which has been the best-selling item in recent weeks—thanks in no small part to the fact that Halle Berry was photographed wearing it. And Rai has more political messages planned, with the launch of a series of tees featuring famous speeches from Chief Joseph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, printed in full on the back.
“Some people say it’s too many words for the back of a T-shirt, that nobody will read the whole thing,” Rai says. But she doesn’t expect people to trail strangers for blocks to read the speeches. Instead, she hopes people will read a few lines and feel inspired to learn more. “If you haven’t heard of that speech, pick up a book and read it,” she says. “It’s hard for some people to get that, but we’re trying to maintain our focus and integrity.”
Rai’s focus on integrity seems to be getting results. Halle Berry isn’t the only celebrity sporting Rai’s clothes. Drew Barrymore was seen in one of the rich purple prayer scarves, Angelina Jolie was photographed in a flowing black Sir A dress, and Ricky Martin wore the Om Mantra tee on his most recent album cover.But it’s not just that celebrities love Sir Alistair Rai—Sir A returns the favor, with a twist of irony thrown in. Rai cleverly combines social commentary with pop-culture savvy, most notably with the “George Clooney 2008?" T-shirt, and another that reads, “Global Warming: That’s Not Hot.” (A pun involving climate change and Paris Hilton? Very hot.)
Rai’s political leanings might seem to clash with her celebrity obsession, but she has no problem reconciling the two. “This is how I see it: There are two sides to every person,” Rai says. “I’ve been politically active my whole life, and I’m very well-read, but I also love the tabloid trash.” Sir Alistair perfectly reflects both America’s current celebrity obsessions and political hopes. “We’re surrounded by all this horrendous stuff—the Iraq war, climate change,” she says, “and gossip is an escape.”
But while Rai makes her living as a clothing designer, she has a mission that goes far beyond the pages of glossy fashion magazines. She doesn’t just use Barack Obama’s name to make a buck; she’s donating a portion of the proceeds to his campaign. Similarly, she’s currently experimenting with organic fabrics and dyes because she understands the increasing importance of environmentally-friendly products. “Most people who do this for a living are trying to set a trend,” Rai says. “I’m trying to send a message. And that’s the difference.”
It seems everyone from Drew Barrymore to Angelina Jolie are wearing scarves from Sir Alistair Rai, a clothing company started by Kiran Rai. “My God, we are selling nearly 5,000 units a month. And, I am so pleased that Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, and even Aishwarya Rai are wearing my scarves. They are basically Buddhist and Hindu prayer wraps with love and peace embroidered on them. We have a huge celebrity following for those,” said Rai.
Rai started her business by printing t-shirts commenting on her dissatisfaction over the Iraq war. “I did start this as a reaction to the Iraq war but it has really brought me a lot of prosperity. It is the right thing at the right time. I also think India has a cycle in fashion. India was huge in the late 70s. Everyone protesting the American war in Vietnam was wearing Indian stuff from kurtas to peace messages. I had an uncle who had an old Indian store in the 70s in Greenwich Village. I was in New York last week and I saw the same thing popping up again. Everything has just clicked for “Sir Alistair Rai” to make it work,” said Rai. Since her debut t-shirts in 2005, her label has taken off.
Rai designs not only printed T-shirts and scarves, but also dresses and tunics. While many people wonder why she named her business, ‘Sir Alistair Rai’, her answer is simple. “I am a British citizen and I know I will never get knighted so I just thought let me have some fun with my label. A lot of the shirts are political so I thought it would be fun if we had somebody grand-sounding who wasn’t me giving the commentary — so I just created Sir Alistair Rai,” said Rai.
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