Creative Spotlight: Gurleen Raj on creating an ethical fashion brand for ‘dark-skinned women’
‘Keep being a mad curious artist’
Gurleen Raj, who began studying her PGCE in Design and Technology at Homerton in 2020 after graduating from her undergraduate degree at Plymouth College of Art, is a graphic designer and illustrator from New Delhi.
Over the years, she has produced some beautiful work, freelancing for professional clients, running her own online shop where she sells products incorporating her designs, and even setting up her own fashion business Kalee Clothing, a labour of love that she produced in the final year of her undergraduate degree.
The Tab Cambridge spoke to Gurleen about her artistic inspiration, her love of design and her hopes for the future.
‘I decided to make the shift to graphic design, changing my mindset forever’
After developing a childhood obsession with fashion and textiles, which came from her love for costumes in Bollywood movies, as well as devouring “an obsessive amount of Vogue magazines”, Gurleen went on to pursue her interest in fashion design and textiles at university.
However, it was her lecturer, who noticed Gurleen’s skill in digital printmaking, who advised her to switch to graphic design. Although the transition was challenging at first, she is now really glad she did it: “I decided to make the shift to graphic design, changing my mindset forever.
“It is design and illustration that really helped my work get complex – but starting from square one wasn’t the best, [but] it worked out in the end! Now I can’t go a week without creating a little something to keep my skills sharp!”
‘I still couldn’t pinpoint my style’
Gurleen is really keen on incorporating a range of styles into her work to remain versatile and experimental: “After an intensive experimentation period during the four years at university I still couldn’t pinpoint my style, as it varies from postmodern, surrealism, contemporary, even expressionism and animation – the list keeps going on and on.
“As a graphic designer, I try to excel at all art styles, so I can blend to whatever my client envisions, and personally, I think it’s very important to be a jack of all trades in our generation.”
‘Being well travelled has given me so much inspiration’
Calling herself a “lucky nomad”, Gurleen reminisces about a life spent moving between different countries and cities, and how that has fuelled her interest in design: “Being well travelled has given me so much inspiration over the years, bearing in mind the plan was always to be a designer – since I can remember.
“Being able to see so much creativity around the world channelled through paintings, sculptures, architecture, textiles and more […] is just amazing to me.”
She explains how her family’s move from New Delhi in India to the UK in 2012 particularly motivated her to pursue her creative interests: “I had only ever really scratched the surface as an artist, however coming to the UK really helped me reveal the wide world of art layer by layer, simultaneously refining my skills.
“My culture is one of the biggest influences in my work, I just have so much to learn! Being able to learn about my culture [more] than I ever had is my motivational push.”
‘Starting a new positive chapter for millions of dark-skinned women’
However, Gurleen has not just limited herself to graphic design. Back in 2018, she created her own fashion business Kalee Clothing as her third-year degree project, a brand that prioritises diversity, inclusion and sustainability.
For her, Kalee was truly a labour of love: “It was my third-year baby that took a year of sweat, tears, dust, friends, talented artists, and my awesome tailors back in Delhi to be born. I started this project solely [because] it’s been my dream to start my own fashion business.”
She aimed to create the brand that she had always searched for in the past: “I wanted to create a brand that could represent something other than white women, years of struggles of finding the right size, the right colour, the right cut – it has been a constant struggle. And now that I have the skills and the means to create a brand, I thought why not!”
The idea for the brand came from a mix of influences from Gurleen’s upbringing and life experiences: “The origin of Kalee comes from a deep-rooted Bollywood culture and the Internet era I grew up in, coming from a background where artisans are still bustling – it’s been a weird culture mix.
“[We are] creating a safe space for women to support ethical labour [so] the design work must match the fierce energy.”
She explained to The Tab Cambridge how she landed upon the name Kalee: “Kalee has a double meaning that translates as ‘the goddess of power’ or ‘dark-skinned women’. The word has been used under a negative connotation towards thousands of dark-skinned women and is a commonly used form of verbal abuse.
“[This is about] taking this negative word and starting a new positive chapter for millions of dark-skinned women around the world to feel their absolute best.”
‘It is an incredible team I got to work with and learned a lot of the industry’
Gurleen graduated from her undergraduate course in 2020 and was ready to jump into the creative industry. Unfortunately, with the onset of the pandemic, Gurleen didn’t really have a chance to get involved in the industry, which for her has been “a little disheartening.”
However, she speaks enthusiastically about some of the experiences she did manage to squeeze in before coronavirus hit: “Before the pandemic, I did have the opportunity to briefly work in the industry as an intern at a luxury fashion business in London (which was so cool!) and a lot of freelance work with clients.”
One of her favourite clients, who she worked for for two years, was Malawi Wawi, a non-profit organisation based in Kapeska, Malawi: “They run an ecommerce business plus a volunteering programme and so much more, it is an incredible team I got to work with and learned a lot of the industry.”
This experience has been one of her proudest achievements as a designer and she speaks with particular fondness about it: “I am the proudest of working at Malawi Wawi and being able to make their business a fully functioning reality, helping the community in any way I can.”
‘Keep being a mad curious artist’
When asked what advice she’d give herself when starting out as a designer, Gurleen emphasises the importance of being experimental: “Keep being a mad curious artist while you have the time and resources to do it! Make crazy art, try everything, which I already know she is doing.”
She is optimistic and enthusiastic about the future: “I’ve started selling my prints and did my very first commission this Christmas, an emotional milestone for sure and I can’t wait to sell more prints from February when the online store doors open. [I want to] keep creating until my graduation this year and pursue my first design job.”
It seems like there are exciting times ahead for Gurleen and in what has been a pretty difficult year for us all, this is a wonderfully bright moment.
You can follow Gurleen and commission work on Instagram (@gurleenrajdesigns), follow Kalee Clothing on Instagram (@kalee_co) and shop products incorporating Gurleen’s designs on gr-designs.redbubble.com.
Featured image credit: Gurleen Raj
All image credits to Gurleen Raj