Meet Houston-based sisters, Erin and Katie of MIRTH. We were first introduced to the duo after seeing their beautiful caftans at Sunroom, and were even more inspired by their story when we learned that it was a sister-team (we love sister stories) but that through MIRTH, they are dedicated to making a positive and lasting social impact. One example of this is their handmade collections that feature artisan-made textiles. These collaborations help sustain the craft, and help provide education and employment for the weavers. What’s not to love about a brand that was built on purpose with an intent to create pieces of ease and comfort. We love that you know exactly where your clothing comes from (see more of the process below) and that your purchase is having a positive impact on the artisans. Number one fans over here! We sat down with Erin and Katie to learn more about how Mirth came to be, what initially drew them to India and what the design process includes, and what’s next for the brand. Follow along on their instagram for a sneak peek of their Fall collection launching soon.
Tell us about your background.
MIRTH was started by sisters Erin Breen and Katie McClure in 2016. Our parents are Texans and Erin was born here, but we grew up between West Virginia and Connecticut. It was only a matter of time before we both eventually made our way to Texas. We’ve lived in Austin and currently both call Houston home. Our backgrounds are a bit varied — Erin has worked in early childhood special education and previously owned a clinic that provided therapy for kids with Autism. Katie studied textiles and apparel at UT, but shelved it to work in recruiting, events & sales. She always regretted not pursuing fashion and textiles or working in a creative and entrepreneurial field, and MIRTH is the result of changing course and making it happen.
Where did the idea of MIRTH Caftans originate?
Katie: The story is a slow one that took shape over many trips and experiences. We were both at a point in life where we were looking for what to do next, determined to find something fulfilling and meaningful. I was traveling in Bali years before when the idea first came. I was admiring the batik and ikat textiles there when I realized that combining these two loves – versatile caftans and resortwear and beautiful heritage textiles from around the world– would be something I’d love to explore and pour myself into. It wasn’t a year later, during a volunteer trip to Nepal and a two week tour of India, right after Erin closed her clinic, where the signs came together and gave us the push we needed. We were both looking to create something of our own, so we combined varied backgrounds to form a company with a backbone of creativity, travel and a mindful life. We’ve both always had a similar aesthetic and style and working together creatively made sense.
We had one day in Jaipur, visiting incredible architectural sights, pouring through basements full of textiles and talking to people we met about the industry, where we would look at each other and think, “this is it! we can do this!” The day ended with an elephant ride in the desert outside of the city and we were elated with our new sense of purpose and our newly formed path that felt so right. We couldn’t stop laughing and it felt as if years of puzzle pieces just came together– pure mirth. We were excited for and ready for the leap of starting a business instead of being fearful of it.
We love the mission behind MIRTH. What moved you to go down the route of clothing made ethically, with a socially conscious spirit?
Our ethos developed very organically. It started with discovering handmade fabrics, and once we started delving into the industry and understanding it, we naturally knew we had to know our supply chain well and do the best we could to ensure everything is done ethically. We realized the value in paying workers well, providing them with consistent work and we also saw the value for not only the weaver or printer, but their families, their communities and the crafts themselves which are dying out to machines. Making fabric in rural areas using heritage techniques has great social impact and some great environmental impact as well. This is all part of appreciating the fabric itself– they aren’t mutually exclusive. So it all made sense. We try our best to do what we think is right, even if it means the clothing is more expensive, has small irregularities and takes longer to make.
Tell us about India, where your artisans reside. What was it in particular that drew you to India?
Katie: I chose to travel to India randomly at first, but I think anyone going to India should be prepared for something quite big and quite life changing. I met a tailor in Nepal, where I was visiting right before India, who made some caftan samples for me. Traveling in Nepal, as travel often does, allowed me to open up and take the chance of putting my foot in the water by exploring making samples. Although they weren’t great, just taking that first step and having a physical item I could wear was a big mental step. I picked Erin up from the airport in Delhi wearing a sample and said, “Look! I want to do this! Do it with me!” So we had it in the back of our minds during our weeks in India, and the signs just kept coming. It was the most fun coming up with ideas for the company while in this magical setting and talking to people we met about the industry.
What is the design process like? Do you both design garments or is it a collaborative effort with the artisans?
The design process is divided into two main parts: the fabric and the garment. We design the fabric both here and in India. Sometimes we take an existing design and perhaps change the colors, or sometimes we come up with it on our own. A blockprint for example, starts with a drawing that we What’s App to the printer. The block carver then carves a wooden teak block by hand. Sometimes we make several blocks for 1 design so we can play with scale. Once we have several blocks and ideas, we travel to India to sample in person. It is truly collaborative with the master printers. We try out combinations, colors, base fabrics…. and the printers are sure to tell us when they don’t like something or have a better idea. There are a lot of gestures and head shaking as most of the printers don’t speak English. It’s a ton of work but a ton of fun.
We design the garments here in Houston from the ground up. We sample both here and with our factories in Delhi. The process is long. We have about 6 seasons we are working on at once, all in different stages. It takes over a year and a half per season from start to finish. Thank goodness for the project management app Trello to keep us organized!
Are there plans to expand to other countries?
We’ve always said this is a natural expansion. Peru, Morocco, Bali are all ideas. But there’s so much in India and we do want to grow smartly because there is a lot of work that goes into getting our supply chain under control and functioning how we need it to. So we hope to expand one day as we grow internally and are able to manage it well.
Let’s talk about working with your sister! Do you each have designated roles within the company? How was that decided?
The sister relationship in unique– it isn’t unusual to strongly disagree and then in the same breath ask the other to go to happy hour. We’ve gone through so much together, and there’s a depth there, so silly arguments or grudges just don’t happen. You can be straightforward without conflict. Starting a business is an incredibly difficult, incredibly trying– we’re in it together, which helps on the bad days. And then we laugh, and somehow, we keep going and things keep falling into place. There’s something to that– and that’s a lesson we’ve learned from the wonderful people in India we work with.
Katie spearheads MIRTH and Erin focuses on special projects, sales, and we design together. Erin brings a positive energy and calmness to the team. She keeps everything in perspective, and helps us remember why we’re doing what we’re doing. We tend to agree on creative direction in terms of designing, and create what we want to wear and what fits the lifestyle– slow, easy, casual, open.
Many of our readers are on the verge of starting their own businesses but are nervous to take the leap. Any advice that was given to you before you started MIRTH?
Just do it! We always say, that’s the hardest part. You won’t have everything figured out from the beginning, so don’t let that hold you back. Our first step after deciding to start MIRTH was working on a business plan. That led to actually working, and we haven’t looked back. Be prepared to work every single day and give up a lot of other things in your life. Start learning skills because you have to be a jack of all trades: from SEO to graphic design to photography and accounting, you’ve got to be able to do a lot by yourself and get scrappy.
Wellness question-any tips or best practices for staying healthy on long flights and international travel?
Erin: We spend far too much time thinking about this. I always have new products I’m trying. Always have activated charcoal to take if your stomach starts hurting– it can knock out bacteria before sickness starts. Drink insane amounts of water. Take probiotics. Try to exercise before and after flights and during a long trip. This makes a huge difference. Bring healthy snacks for the plane and always have snacks in your bag– I like snacks from Moon Juice and Katie always brings Juiceland foods on the plane.
Photos by Kendall Hanna