Here’s How This Homegrown Fashion Label Is Empowering Prisoners

Young Divej Mehta spent many hours with his grandfather, distributing essentials to the needy and caring for the orphans, the disabled and cancer patients. Blending this sense of purpose with his MBA project gave shape to Inmate in 2018; his upbringing mirrored at the crux of the footwear label.

As the name suggests, the label works with prison inmates, creating work opportunities for them. Its founder, Divej, talks to ELLE India about how he aims to empower this particular section of society:

Divej Mehta, Founder of Inmate

ELLE: What led you to involve prisoners at Inmate, and how does this employment benefit them?

Divej Mehta (DM): I first came across ‘Indian Prison Industries’ in 2013, and it struck a chord with me. At that moment, I knew that working with and meaningfully engaging prison inmates was the answer I was looking for. Besides giving meaning to the business, it would help the inmates earn wages and learn new skill-sets. Perhaps, they could use it to make a living and later provide for their families again.

ELLE: How did Kolhapuri sandals come to be the key product of Inmate?

DM: I decided to go with making high-quality Kolhapuri sandals after observing their scarcity in the Indian market. It is one of the oldest types of footwear but is hardly available because it is handcrafted and requires a skilled workforce; it’s difficult to find. Tapping into this unavailability, we started developing Kolhapuri sandals with the right mix of machinery, raw materials and workforce strength that we already had.

ELLE: The term ‘prisoner’ is often seen in a negative light. In that regard, what kind of positive feedback do you receive from your patrons?

DM: Prisoners are hardly given a second chance to change the negative perception about them. Through my work, I would like people to know even convicts are human, and if given a chance, they are capable of changing. Inmate gives people a sense of pride while making a purchase, and for the prison department, it is a meaningful collaboration to promote rehabilitation.

ELLE: What has been the highlight of your journey since Inmate’s launch?

DM: In February 2018, we delivered our first shipment from the Yerwada Central Prison (Pune, Maharashtra). I saw mixed emotions on the faces of our believers (inmates), a sense of pride and ownership and teary smiles on their faces. It made that day the highlight of my journey.

ELLE: What are your future plans with Inmate?

DM: We are building on our cobranding model in south India, growing our digital presence and working on getting our story and product out internationally. We have started curating collections for UAE and Europe for a mid-2022 launch. We also want to enter more independent, conscious stores. Through our presence in the prisons of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, we have empowered 400 inmates, and our goal for 2025 is to offer a second chance to 1000 believers.

Photographs: Courtesy of Inmate

Find ELLE’s June 2021 issue on stands or download your digital copy here.

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