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iran 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.

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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.

Rai’s Indian heritage influences all her designs, from artful scarves and elegant dresses to tank tops burnished with images of Ganesh and Gandhi. And her line’s bohemian flair has made it popular with everyone from yoga enthusiasts to trendy 20-somethings.

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.

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“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.

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Drew Barrymore loves her Sir Alistair Rai scarf.

But it’s not just that celebrities love Sir Alistair Rai—Sir A returns the favor, with a twist of irony thrown in. Kitson, the ubiquitously trendy Los Angeles boutique, went crazy over Rai’s T-shirt reading “Adopt Me, Angelina,” as well as the “Team Denise” and “Team Heather” T-shirts, which play on the friendship-turned-rivalry of actresses Denise Richards and Heather Locklear. And 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.”n

Katie Karlson is a pop-culture connoisseur who strives to live the good life. She lives in New York City.
Published on May 21, 2007.
Photography: Courtesy of Kiran Rai.
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