Milwaukee's belabela blooms locally, nationally
More than a decade ago, Bela Roongta started a small T-shirt and card business called belatees based on her love for henna and henna-inspired design.
Today, it has grown into a larger business called belabela and her silk-screened clothing items, cards and art work are sold locally, nationally and internationally.
Roongta, who is of Indian descent but was raised in the West, was always curious about where her parents came from. In 2000, she traveled to India in search of a cultural connection. While there, she became fascinated with the art of Mehndi (henna) and she learned how to mix the paste and create designs on the hands and feet of her family and friends.
After returning to the United States, Roongta, who was an attorney at the time and then became a new mother, did not continue to dabble in henna until late one night when she was inspired and put pen to paper to draw a henna-themed birthday card for a friend. The feedback from friends who saw the card at the party motivated Roongta to keep going.
Roongta went on to design dozens of images and today she runs belabela out of her Shorewood studio. Two years ago she teamed up with Kathi Castle, who had just decided to sell her business, Castle Fitness Wear.
Castle, who sold yoga and fitness clothing in health clubs, yoga and fitness studios and trunk shows, was a fan of Roongta's work. Castle envisioned belatees growing into more and so, when the time was right, she sold her business and now works as belabela's business developer. But Castle has also become a friend and source of encouragement for Roongta.
"I'm trying to free up more of her brain to be creative," says Castle.
Belabela now has a line of clothing for men, women and children, including T-shirts, dresses, hoodies and yoga wear. Cards, stationery and prints are also available.
About 20 of Roongta's designs are currently in use and silk screened by Visual Impressions. Her designs range from more traditional Indian designs like Buddhas and elephants and lotus flowers to surprising images like sea horses and bicycle wheels and sugar skulls.
Locally, belabela items are available at One Tooth in Bayshore Town Center, Flirt (both the Mequon and the Third Ward locations) and Yoga One in Fox Point and Cedarburg.
Castle encouraged Roongta to enter the yoga market because she knew her unique designs would be popular with the demographic. Although she is an avid runner, Roongta was not a yoga practitioner and wasn't sure she wanted to get pigeon-holed in the niche.
"I knew my work was a natural fit with the yoga market, and let's face it, I'm a small, brown woman who looks like I'd do yoga," says Roongta.
Castle convinced Roongta to try one show, and so in 2011, the two women set up shop in the marketplace area at a large Yoga Journal sponsored show in San Francisco.
Roongta says it was a huge leap of faith to front the money for the booth but also to believe that customers would see her as a viable seller and artist.
"I was already struggling with the word 'artist.' I came late in the game. I was not trained in art. I did not think I would be seen as a 'true artist,'" she says.
The first three hours of the show were brutal. Roongta did not sell a single item and she started to doubt the decision to try the yoga market. By the end of the weekend, however, she was very pleased with the amount of product she sold and, more so, the connections she made with other small business owners.
"The culture of vendors is so interesting and inspiring," she says.
Roongta and Castle have gone on to sell belabela items at dozens of shows in New York, California, Canada, Minnesota, Madison, Lake Geneva and Milwaukee.
"The shows have helped me find my voice, my home and my confidence as an artist. I enjoy talking to people, telling them my story in a way that feels very authentic," says Roongta. "It's always an East vs. West thing for me: trying to honor a culture I came from but was never raised in."
Roongta was born in Tanzania, but at six months old, moved with her parents to London where she lived until she was 8 years old. Her family then immigrated to the United States where they settled first in Cleveland, Ohio, and later Houston, Texas. She later went to college and law school in Iowa before settling in Milwaukee.
Roongta still enjoys giving henna tattoos with real henna on skin. She says the practice of henna calms and centers her away from the stress of selling, but most of all, it reconnects her with her roots.
"Every time I open a henna cone, it viscerally takes me back to India," she says.
Roongta says she also appreciates the anonymity of the shows. After living a socially high-profile life for many years and knowing so many people in Milwaukee, it's a relief to go into an environment where no one has any preconceived notions about her.
And the business keeps meandering in new directions. Roongta, who never saw herself as a "real artist," was recently commissioned by yoga studio owner Allan Danto who owns three studios in California and one St. Louis, Mo. Danko ordered four sets of Roongta's chakra series of prints for each of his studios – called Yoga Six – and plans to order more.
"We are opening 12-15 studios in 2013. We plan to use the prints in all of them," says Danto.
Roongta has also been asked to design tattoos, something she finds a challenge and an honor.
Roongta continues to blaze her own trail, uncertain of what's ahead, but she's inspired and ready to find out. The expansion opportunities for belabela came at a time in Roongta's life when a lot of old patterns were reconfiguring and she was ready to create something fresh and new.
"My art and the business allow me to connect with myself," says Roongta. "I realize that there are infinite possibilities and I have a lot to give."
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