The Designer-Activist of the Sunderbans

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, October 11, 2018

The Sunderbans in West Bengal is a UNESCO World heritage site, with many endangered species and the world’s largest coastal mangrove forest. Located in the southern part of the mangrove region, amid the wild tales of flora and fauna, is a contained community that uses the natural resources to be self-sufficient. Four local women, Bulu Raha, Anima Mondal, Sushuma Mistry and Shephali Roy—who technically live outside Kolkata and also make Canning town their base—were mentored by a social worker, Prakriti Roy, who was working with spinners and weavers at that time. In 1975, at the age of 18, Shephali went to Roy for a job. Instead, he guided her in creating a self-sufficient fair-trade women’s organisation, the Sunderban Khadi Village Industrial Society (SKVIS), of which she is now vice president. In 1981, SKVIS began exports post their first sample order from Holland. While the women—who are well-schooled and have good communication skills—have the combined skill sets of weaving, spinning, dyeing, design and tailoring, their local orders largely remain printing jobs.

Natural Dye Master SuramaNatural-dye master, Surama, in the Sunderbans

Finding a Local Voice

Ondi McMaster-Chullil, a believer in indigenous design and sustainability, has explored the talent of the women of SKVIS in her local handcrafted eco-ethical label, Atelier OM. She sources products like muslin khadi and stoles from them, has worked on batik designs and researched natural dyeing of fabric with them. An American raised in California, she spent two years in India in the mid 1990s studying regional crafts and returned in 2010 on an Art Karavan, as a part of a performance installation art movement, starting in Shantiniketan and travelling across nine cities in nine weeks. After working for Issey Miyake and as a costume designer in film and television in New York, her return to India was an entrepreneurial turning point. In 2011, she began her own sustainable label; she keeps a seasonal shop called OMkhadi in North Goa, while retailing out of stores in India and worldwide, including Paperboat Collective and Sacha’s Shop in Goa, Artisans in Mumbai and Good Earth (Delhi, Mumbai).

McMaster-Chullil discovered the local Sunderbans’ community out of a desire to see the areas from where the raw materials are produced. She believes, “If you are a designer in India, you should live beside them and see what it means to make those products. From bumpy roads and tiger-eating stories to destitution…but what you do have is something that’s truly authentic—people are willing to survive and make really beautiful products out there.”

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Ondi at OMKHADI shop event

Building a Support Network

Having travelled to the location several times over the last few years, McMaster-Chullil now considers the four women of the Sunderbans to be her close friends. With no infrastructure or hotels in the remote area, she lives in their homes. “(Prakriti) Roy saw in them the attraction towards working for something more meaningful in their life than just being mothers. These four women have formed an amazing network and support system for many women there.” Today, SKVIS trains young girls; works towards social implementation and is an enabler with a micro-finance setup for 500 local women.

The concept of a community and its well-being is strong—the driving force is not the ego, profits or monopolisation. It is to work with and develop the natural resources towards a greater good. With fashion being the second largest pollutant after oil, and an industry that has now become infamous for low-wage mass production of goods, designers that take up the baton as activists attempt to bring order and stability in a skewed universe. McMaster-Chullil believes that a “designer-activist” has to have integrity, moral fibre, and a deep understanding of the situation. “I will make the decisions that are beneficial for the people that I am working with. After which, I make the decisions for the planet that I am living on. What I am interested in is the people—investing in relationships by working together and watching each other grow.”

Batik UnitBatik unit in the Sunderbans

At the risk of romanticising, McMaster-Chullil describes the community of SKVIS: “Women working in the way of village life: children sitting next to their mothers as they have a meeting, women spinning with children lying on their laps…no deadline or rush; it is one of the beautiful stories in India of female entrepreneurship.” And yet, it is a modern Indian story, because these women have the freedom to be entrepreneurial and are respected for what they do. “They have much less than others, and yet are happy, content and grateful. They are not excessive, they live within their means. It comes down to simplicity. The vision of the future isn’t an industrialised one.”

A Fair Swap

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, September 28, 2018

Mumbai will witness its first-ever clothes swap at Fairtrunk Offline’s third and to-date biggest sustainable event

On October 6, Mumbai is going to see what is potentially the city’s first official clothes swap. While traditionally hand-me-downs are a part of the fabric of Indian society, swapping clothes has not yet made it to accepted fashionista parlance. Bursting wardrobes and the ongoing dialogue on sustainable fashion encourage the thought that a pre-loved garment in good condition that one may have outgrown—in terms of size, fit, style or interest—may work wonderfully for someone else.

Dhawal Mane, Global Fashion Exchange (GFX) Ambassador for India, who has organised three such swaps (called SwapStitched) in Bengaluru, the most recent being September 22, is ready to take the concept to other cities. In Fairtrunk Offline—an event-based offshoot of the slow-fashion digital marketplace, Fairtrunk—Mane has found a worthy platform to partner with. He says: “I would like to see more people embracing swapping and bartering as a form of consumption. It is a mindset shift: from ownership to access, albeit mindfully.” For the Mumbai swap, Seams For Dreams (SFD), a charity organisation by actress Evelyn Sharma, will be sharing some pre-loved, gently used clothing items by designers, and all the leftover clothing items will be donated to the ones in need by SFD.

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Vast Creative Possibilities

India witnessed—what Mane states is—probably the country’s biggest swap when he got inspired by the GFX’s global swap event during the worldwide movement, Fashion Revolution Week 2018. Mane went on to become the local ambassador for swaps and organised the first swap event in Bengaluru, where 150 items of clothing were traded among 60 attendees in four hours. So far, 190 items have been swapped, among 85 people from Bengaluru, while diverting approximately 150 kg of clothing from a landfill or an incinerator. These swaps are also a part of the 1 million pound partnership with GFX, which is the quantity of clothing that GFX aims to save from ending up in a landfill in 2018.

SwapStitched events are scheduled to take place in Bengaluru once every two months on weekends, in different locations. Says Mane: “While the number of attendees is increasing with every swap, we also have repeat swappers because it is a fun process exploring different designs from in-season to vintage, providing infinite creative possibilities of styling an outfit—where no two products will be the same—while being light on the pocket.”

Building a Slow Fashion Community

SwapStitched is only one of the events that Fairtrunk Offline is organising in its day-long event at Pioneer Hall in Bandra. In the past, Fairtunk Offline has held two events, the most recent being a part of Fashion Revolution week in April, and included a documentary screening, blogger meet-up, panel discussions, and an upcycling workshop. Its third edition will be the largest Fairtrunk Offline event to date, which will include a curated slow-fashion pop-up with 25 young brands across fashion and lifestyle, workshops with designers like Anuj Sharma from Button Masala and talks on sustainable fashion. The decor is planned with upcycled fabric. Darshana Gajare, founder of Fairtrunk and Fairtrunk Offline, expects a turnout of two to three thousand people.

5bae00d9185f4Msafiri, One of the brands showing at the pop-up.

Fairtrunk Offline was launched to increase awareness about sustainable fashion, creating experiences and building a mindful community, as evidenced in their #SlowTheFuckDown campaign. Gajare started both projects last year, after watching ‘The True Cost’, a documentary on the global effects of fast fashion. While spreading awareness about sustainability, Gajare discovered that consumers were asking for alternate options. This led to her launching an online marketplace, which now gives space to over 30 slow-fashion brands.

The lack of transparency, regulation and accountability in India forced Gajare to do her own groundwork in the selection of the brands. Being bootstrapped means that she can’t physically go to review each supply chain, but she “takes the time to meet and understand the brand ethos and to gauge if they are invested in the cause.” While admitting that it is not a foolproof method, her work as a part of the Fashion Revolution India team helps give her the muscle to evaluate brands and spread the word.

Event details: October 6, 10am-10pm, Pioneer Hall, Bandra, Mumbai. Insider link hereFacebook link here.

Swap Rules

You can bring up to 10 pieces of good quality, unwanted clothing. (Socks, underwear, lingerie, nightwear, pyjamas are not allowed.) Every item will be checked for quality, only approved pieces will make it to the swap floor. You get a coupon for an accepted piece of clothing that you have brought which can be used to pick up another piece of clothing that you want or retained for another swap event. Read more here.

Where Fashion Gets Square: Instagram’s Big Impact On Fashion

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Published: Mint Lounge, September 22 edition

When jewellery designer Kaabia Grewal hosted a Grecian bachelorette trip in Mykonos in July, she posted pictures of guests wearing custom-made Shivan & Narresh ensembles on Instagram (the designers themselves were on the guest list). Perhaps actor Sonam Kapoor’s May wedding—with #sonamkishaadi grabbing 68,800 posts—filled with decadent couture designs had set the tone.

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 2.11.08 PMAn Instagram campaign by Shivan & Narresh for their ‘Eden Noir’ collection

Instagram, launched in 2010 and acquired by Facebook Inc. for $1 billion (around ₹7,250 crore today) in 2012, is one of the world’s most popular social media apps. During a panel discussion titled Fashion On Instagram held in Delhi in July, Sandeep Bhushan, director, Facebook (India and South Asia), said, “Fashion is the third-most followed category by young people globally on Instagram, behind music and entertainment.” With a worldwide community of over one billion users, and 25 million businesses, the photo- and video-sharing app has changed the way we live, interact and shop. What is its digital charisma and can brands get famous by just getting on the bandwagon?

A level playing field
An audience ready to scroll and shop has created unprecedented opportunities for businesses. While the internet strips shopping of the touch-and-feel experience, Instagram’s ability to create evocative stories and user-generated-and-curated reportage of runway shows, collection and campaign previews and behind-the-scenes stories, infuses the fashion industry with a new dynamism.

Today, most Indian fashion brands use the platform proactively, while Kolkata-based couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee has been an Instagram trailblazer since 2015. His eponymous brand has seven Instagram accounts, including a core account (started in 2015 with 2.6 million followers), city-specific accounts and one dedicated to “Brides of Sabyasachi”. The designer’s Firdaus line debuted on Instagram in 2016 and his jewellery line followed suit in 2017. “A couture show is not meant to be a democratic release. But I wanted to flip the concept—do it in a way that it goes to every single household,” says the designer. “Gone are the days when you could build luxury with the concept of distance. Today, it has to be more inclusive.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 2.10.21 PMA screengrab from Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s official Instagram account

Raul Rai, co-founder of lifestyle brand Nicobar, believes their audience has been built largely on Instagram—50% of their customers discovered the brand via social media. Its reach also means that geography doesn’t restrict shopping. Shivan Bhatiya and Narresh Kukreja have tapped markets like South Africa, Singapore, Jakarta and West Asia, courtesy their eponymous brand’s Instagram account.

Indie brands too capitalize on the platform. Carol’s Shop & Tea Room, selling vintage clothing and collectibles from Nagaland, has worked purely off Instagram from the start, taking orders directly through the portal. “The interaction with the customer is more on a personal level,” says model Carol Humtsoe, who founded the e-shop in 2016 (she is now putting together a small brick-and-mortar shop in Dimapur).

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 2.11.24 PMAn Instagram post from Carol’s Shop & Tea Room

From grid to gallery
The 3×1 grid on Instagram (the display format on user profiles) has become a dazzling visual playground for brands. When formulating campaigns, a sizeable amount of planning is dedicated to Instagram and brands are upping their content strategy to establish a distinct voice that, they assume, will eventually lead to sales. Arjun Sawhney, managing director of communications agency TCCGGD, believes Instagram creates communities and enables a strong point of view. “Social media helps create brand awareness, in the right tone, and garner an audience, but it is not necessarily a driver of sales,” he says. “A focused, relevant audience with the economic potential to engage is critical to a brand on social media. It is not just your content game; it is the stories you are pushing.”

During the New York Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2016, the Tommy Hilfiger show witnessed the “InstaPit”, an influencer-only section with claims to maximum visibility—#TommyFall16 and #TommyHilfiger reached 137,170,550 people on Instagram (according to marketing company Pixlee).

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More recently, American fast-fashion brand, Fashion Nova, has been in the news with 13.2 million Instagram followers. The brand’s customers have generated volumes of content, including selfies with #NovaBabes, driving sales via micro-influencers and celebrity endorsements.

While worldwide influencers make or break businesses, in India, the trend remains nascent. Malika Verma Kashyap, founder of digital agency and online publication Border&Fall, says, “It is filled with many smaller players who are engaging brands, but the level of ‘influence’ is negligible whether it be a stylist, designer, blogger or other. Bollywood remains the strongest influencer, and Sonam Kapoor reigns supreme with fashion brands.”

The evolution is rapidly underway, even if it hasn’t matured. “There is a shift in focus from bloggers with maximum follower count to creators of organic and original content with a targeted and niche followership, which, in turn, has given rise to a newer generation of thought leaders,” say designers Bhatiya and Kukreja.

For many brands, the platform is weighed down by the price of influencer marketing and Instagram’s reshuffled programming. What may have started as a democratic approach is now curated by algorithms that control the reach of posts. Meanwhile, consumers are also likely to get pickier about purchase triggers, gravitating towards authenticity and quality (over quantity) of posts. Rai keeps editorial and marketing teams separate to ensure an independent voice for Nicobar; while Mukherjee says: “I like to keep the voice intimate. Instagram allows you to connect directly with your consumer without a filter. The good, the bad and the ugly—it is all out there in honest, transparent communications.”

A digital economy of excess
A Hootsuite Instagram stats-list suggests that 60% people discover products through Instagram, and 70% are likely to make a purchase on their mobiles. Earlier this year, Instagram expanded its shoppable posts’ feature to eight countries and enabled electronic payments for some companies. Now, Instagram is reportedly developing a stand-alone shopping application that may be called “IG Shopping”.

But the sense of immediacy combined with the need to own can drive impulsive purchases. Among the selfie-clicking generation, can an Instagrammer be “seen” in the same garment again?

Buyers swipe their cards on both sides of the fence: those who swear by online shopping and others who continue to prefer the traditional touch-and-feel purchases. New York-based brand strategy professional Tarana Mehta, who goes online for most of her purchases, sees Instagram as a “discovery platform”, finding new brands via influencers or ads. She has, like many others, bought into “the convenience of shifting the dressing room to the bedroom”. Kashyap, on the other hand, chooses not to shop on Instagram to avoid the “re-targeting algorithm” (an online code tracking customers to display ads relevant to their search habits).

Yet the platform’s ability to build a strong voice expands to those balancing the scales as well. Organizations like Fashion Revolution and Global Fashion Exchange are using the platform to start a global dialogue on fashion and enable consumer awareness. As consumers drive trends, a platform like Instagram, when not diluted with aggressive advertising and clickbait, can facilitate meaningful dialogues on fashion.

The Story Of Scrap

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, September 19, 2018

Few zero-waste fashion labels are giving discarded fabric a new lease of life

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 1.59.09 PMBanner photo, from left to right: Doodlage, Tilla, Ka-sha by Karishma Shahani Khan

While consumer waste and the need to upcycle and recycle are ongoing and pertinent dialogues, how do designers in the fashion industry set a standard by being thrifty with the waste from their own manufacturing process? Scrap may be defined as the textile remnants left behind during the design and manufacturing of garments. In the garment districts of Dhaka, the jhut are left in go-downs (where fires are a regular occurrence), sold at the curb, dumped reaching landfills, or burned, causing immense pollution. Kriti Tula, of the upcycling label, Doodlage points out: “Approximately 120 billion square metres of fabric end up as waste in India, China, Bangladesh alone, and this does not include garment rejections during quality checks. Considering cotton takes one to five months to decompose while polyester sits around for 200 years, fabric scraps need to be managed better.” On an average, the Delhi-based Doodlage upcycles up to 600 kilograms of waste fabric every month—working with post-cutting waste, fabrics discarded for small defects and rejected garments.

The Art of Upcycling
All garments are cut from fabrics which come in rectangular panels, leading to up to 16 percent of the fabric being thrown away in cutting and stitching processes. This is the raw material for designers keen on saving resources that would have otherwise gone into the production of virgin fabrics. Karishma Shahani Khan, the founder of Pune-based label Ka-Sha believes in negligible waste in an endeavour termed ‘Heart to Haat’. She uses fabric waste extensively in embroidery, footwear, patchwork, stuffed toys, macramé and bags; reaching out to friends and other designers in the industry for their scrap as well. When clients come to Shahani Khan for a bespoke piece, she first checks if there is anything in their wardrobe which could be reconstructed. Says the designer, “Upcycling gives something that could have lost its actual value a new meaning. It is a creative process to ensure longevity, which works best if the garments are of high quality and are made to last.”

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Designs for Longevity
Aratrik Dev Varman from the Ahmedabad-based slow-fashion label, Tilla, finds the waste from the cutting to be valuable because so much time and effort is invested into the sustainable textiles he uses for his garments. “Odd bits and pieces—like the negative spaces under the armholes or neck—tend to normally be discarded, but since we produce the fabric ourselves, we consider it precious, and we save it all.” Varman gives the scrap a new lease of life: all the fallout is immediately categorised according to colour or fabric into a ‘library of scrap’, while the design process involves parallel thinking about artfully using the textile along with the leftover bits. The designer doesn’t believe that there is any scrap that cannot be used, “Waste is the failure of the imagination,” he points out, using the mantra of Douglas McMaster, founder of a first-ever zero-waste restaurant called Silo, in Birmingham.

For the Mumbai-based duo, Rekha Bhati and Nikki Kali, from the sustainable label, Kishmish, leftover textiles—which are grouped into bundles or ‘potla-potlis’—are designed into thoughtful products, like clothing, scarves and bags, leading to a ‘Potla Potli’ collection.

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Historically, handcrafted garments were designed with thrift in mind: saris, dupattas come off the loom in that shape, styles like ponchos, anarkalis or kalidar clothes use artful cutting without waste, and in cultures like Japan, the Kimono as a garment uses narrow strips to make a whole. Austrian Lenzing Group’s innovative Refibra technology (launched last year) upcycles cotton scraps from garment production along with wood pulp into Tencel™ Lyocell fibres from which new clothes may be made—brands like Zara and Cone Denim (USA) have begun using it.

Scraps have their own non-linear life journey, and it may not be wrong to say that the garment is richer for it. Japanese artist, Chiharu Shiota, who has created installations out of well-worn dresses (Memory of Skin, Yokohama Triennale, 2001), has said in Chiharu Shiota – Memory of Books, in conversation with James Putnam: “I am not interested in using a new dress because there are no memories or stories inside it.”

London-based Hendrickje Schimmel working under the name, Tenant of Culture, archives found or damaged pieces of anonymous clothing—and through her work, attempts to extend the longevity of the products as opposed to discarding them. She is quoted in 1 Granary, a publication by the students of Central Saint Martins saying: “[…] We live in such a remix culture. I don’t really believe in authorship and so naturally I feel that an artwork or garment should have more than one lifecycle.”

Finding the Right Balance
Evidently, post and pre-consumer scraps are one of many practices of the fashion industry which are set to have a long-term impact on our environment and the world we live in. While they make a garment textured, can scrap solve the problem of the cutting waste from the fashion industry? The duo from Kishmish, like all the others attempting to make a difference with thoughtful design, agree: “If every fashion label upcycles, it will eventually create a balance between consumption and the earth’s regenerative capacities.” Says Tula, “The situation is slowly heading towards a point of no return and the only way to effect a change is to reform the mindset of those who create as well as those who buy.”

In Search of the Elusive Eco-Friendly Garment

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, September 12, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-09-13 at 4.00.26 PMPadmaja

The grande dame of fashion, British designer, Vivienne Westwood, said it simply to Newsbeat at London Fashion Week a few years ago: “Buy Less, Choose Well, Make It Last.”

Fashion is the biggest pollutant in the world after oil: clothing consumption produces 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per household per year—the equivalent of driving 6000 cars—as noted by the environmental documentary film, RiverBlue. 2700 litres of water are consumed in the production of a single T-shirt. Since countries with large fabric- and apparel-making industries rely mainly on fossil fuels for energy production, it is estimated that making 1 kilogram of fabric generates an average of 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases, as noted in a 2016 McKinsey article, Style That’s Sustainable.

There is a lack of transparency from luxury brands as well as fast fashion brands. For instance, it is not the case that paying more for clothes equals workers being paid well or given good working conditions.

What then makes a garment sustainable and how does a conscious consumer find one?

To begin with, research your favourite brands online to find out how they fare on the Fashion Transparency Index provided by UK-based global movement Fashion Revolution. The checklist below, while not comprehensive, helps understand the ways in which a garment impacts the world and what you can do to make better choices. Many labels noted below fall into multiple categories, but have been listed only once to avoid repetition.

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Natural Dyes or AZO-Free Chemical Dyes 
Toxic chemical dyes that contain Azo and fabric dyes heavy in lead, mercury and cadmium can reportedly cause cancer and sensory loss in humans and kill marine life. Look for garments that are made with natural dyes (using plant, insect or mineral bases), which are also healthier for the skin. Naturally-dyed garments must be handled carefully—they age and fade with time, so it is best to wash them in cold water with reetha (soap nut) or a mild detergent. Indian brands like Maku, Crow and Naushad Ali among others use natural dyes, while labels like Tilla also work with Azo-free chemical dyes. You can also opt for kora (undyed) garments from designers like Atelier OM and Suparna Som.

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Biodegradable or Organic Fabrics
Garments made from natural sources include organic fibres spun from seeds that do not require the use of pesticides or chemicals to grow and are biodegradable. Linen—used by labels like Anavila and Padmaja—made from the fibres of the flax plant is more sustainable and stronger than cotton. That Thou Art showcases garments cut from Pochampalli Cotton which is organic and naturally dyed, while No Nasties, like the name suggests, is a fair-trade organic label. Raymond has tied up with the Khadi and Village Industries Commission to hero handspun and handwoven khadi, while Anita Dongre’s Grassroots works with eco-friendly fibres.

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Recycled and Upcycled Materials 
These include fabric spin-offs from the non-biodegradable waste that could choke our planet. For example, the fibre ‘Nylon 6’, is made from 100 percent regenerated waste materials including reclaimed fishing nets. It is used in Swedish Stockings’ pantyhose as well as luxury brand Stella McCartney’s Falabella Go Backpacks. Indian label Doodlage’s entire collection is made from industrial waste and recycled materials. Whereas 11.11/eleven.eleven has a refurbished line which restores naturally-dyed indigo garments from their collections that didn’t make the first cut. Payal Khandwala makes accessories from recycled studio waste.

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Handcrafted
Buying from local artisans and groups encourages diversity and grass-roots level craftsmanship including that of weavers, dyers and embroiderers. Many Indian designers are going back to the loom for weaving fabric (like Akaaro by Gaurav J Gupta, Raw Mango, Injiri and Tahweave), exploring artisanal embroidery techniques (like Pero and Sabyasachi) or printing (like Poochki, Anokhi). During Lakme Fashion Week Summer/Resort ‘18’s Sustainable Fashion Day, north-eastern designers showcased collaborative collections reviving local crafts.

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Low Carbon Footprint Including Energy Consumption 
Designers like Soham Dave have made the low carbon footprint of clothing a part of their manifesto. His Ahmedabad-based sustainable eponymous label uses negligible electricity in the manufacturing process, which is entirely by hand.

Fair Wages and Working Conditions
Look for labels that establish higher labour and environmental standards for suppliers and set up mechanisms to make supply chains more transparent. Behno was founded in New York by Shivam Punjya to improve the situation of female artisans in Gujarat with an ethical garment factory, MSA Ethos. Designer Samant Chauhan works for the cause of his native Bhagalpur (in Bihar) master weavers, Gaurang Shah works with over 700 weavers across India and The Goodloom By GOCOOP enables handloom cooperatives and artisans to connect directly with consumers. Eka works with reliable supply chains across various parts of the country. Globally, the software company EVRYTHNG and packaging maker Avery Dennison have together launched an effort to tag clothing so consumers can trace how individual items were produced all along the supply chain.

Waste and Toxicity Management
Fashion waste comes from water, fabric, materials and energy. Tencel®, a fabric by Austrian company Lenzing, is made from sustainably-harvested trees in a ‘closed-loop’ production cycle that recycles almost 100 percent of solvent. Rajesh Pratap Singh’s androgynous garments use Tencel. Labels like Purvi KabraKishmish and Ka-Sha believe in zero fabric waste, and use all the fabric scrap towards garments or accessories.

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Classic and Seasonless
‘The average person buys 60 percent more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as was the case 15 years ago,’ noted last year’s Greenpeace report, ‘Fashion At Crossroads’. Invest in well-crafted classics and have a timeless appeal, and create new looks with layered clothing. Scandinavian designers have mastered functional garments, while local labels like Door of Maai and UK shirt brand that is made in India, Badger Badger, believe in trend-less clothing which is sustainable.

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Eco-Friendly Packaging
While most sustainable designers avoid plastic and recycle their fabric scrap into bags, some go the extra mile. Eco-ethical label Nadiya Paar’s price tags can be planted, which will grow into marigold plants, while Canadian eco-ethical brand, Matt and Nat (started by a vegan Indian) has tags that can be used as bookmarks.

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Retailers 
While it is easiest to buy directly from sustainable designers online, reducing the retail footprint, curated stores like Janaki in Puducherry, Goa-based Paperboat Collective and Sasha’s Shop, Delhi’s Vayu at Bikaner House, Cinnamon, Raintree and Indelust in Bengaluru, Amethyst in Chennai, Byloom in Kolkata, Good Earth Sustain and Nicobar make an effort towards stocking sustainable products. Slow-fashion moving pop-ups like Pause For A Cause bring together young artisanal labels in a single space.

Disclaimer: The brand-related facts in this article, especially those with regards to fair wages and working conditions, are as reported by the labels and not verified by the publication.

Haute and Vegan

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, August 16, 2018

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While India’s tradition of khadi and cotton is cruelty-free, vegetarian or vegan consumers have been hard-pressed to find brands that deliver the same aesthetic of leather, with style and panache. Cheap alternatives are often made from poor quality and non-environmentally friendly plastics. These have begun to be replaced with durable and better quality manmade materials, which may consist of recycled or sustainable materials, or non-PVC polyurethane by brands that are conscious about ethical values as well as the ecological impact. A few of the brands that deliver the goods make the shortlist below, including some tried and tested favourites.

Stella McCartney: Pretty much anything from her collection has haute appeal, but above all she is a designer who is respected for spearheading the conversation about ethical fashion and walking the talk. Because of McCartney, ethical luxury is no longer an oxymoron. The Stella Star shoulder bags and the Stella Logo Hobo are winners from her latest collection. The hobo, available in a range of pop and muted colours takes alter-nappa to another level of sexy.

Gunas: Brought up between Ludhiana and Pune, Sugandh Agrawal founded Gunas in 2009 in New York, where she currently lives. She has invested years of research into finding the sweet spot between affordability and quality for a chic leather alternative. The Tippi Tote in a range of colours (though the mint shade is divine) is roomy, comfortable and well-crafted, while their recently-launched men’s bag crafted in MULBTEX™️  is made from mulberry leaves.

Jill Milan: Started by a vegan, Jill Frazer, the luxury bags are handcrafted in Italy and have been seen regularly on the international red carpets, carried by celebrities like Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence. Their stylish Newbury Street Portfolio from their latest collection looks like a trendy clutch, but the interior can accommodate an iPad.

Vendula London: Quirky, fun bags and accessories, they form creative scapes like English Garden, Sewing Shop and Prosecco Bar, with a layered, textured design. Theirbook-shaped coin purse will give the pickpocket a run for his money.

O bag: Hailing from Italy, these bags are customisable and also offer interchangeable handles and styles. Made of EVA polymer, they are waterproof, lightweight and resilient, with various conscious options. The O Bag mini herringbone from their Spring 2018 collection allows you to swap trims, handles and inner bags—changing the look of the same tote.

Piñatex is a strong and flexible textile made from pineapple leaves developed by Ananas Anam. Being an upscaled byproduct of waste, it is environmentally friendly. It is used in a range of products including ethical footwear, clothes, accessories and furnishing. This Things I Miss Giantletterbag and these Altiir neo-classic biker jackets are cool and functional.

Pelcor is a Portugal-based brand that offers cork skin products as a sustainable alternative to leather—cork being eco-friendly. Besides bags and shoes, they also have tech accessories like this laptop sleeve and pet products.

Plum is India’s first 100 percent vegan beauty brand that is priced sensitively and offers a range of products including the Angel Eyes Kohl Kajal which comes with an easy-blend smudger. Founded by an Indian chemical engineer, Shankar Prasad, and created in a London design studio, Plum is a sustainable brand using natural ingredients.

Matt and Nat’s Mitsuko in a range of pastel shades is a perfect office bag which can be slung or carried in the hand. It had me at the recycled cork label, recycled plastic bottles’ inner lining and the price tag that is also a bookmark. The quality is so good that it doesn’t disintegrate or wear out over time. The brand, started by an Indian in Canada, Inder Bedi in 1995, is a pioneer in the affordable cruelty-free accessories space, with exacting aesthetics. They have great options for men as well.

Save the Duck is a third-generation Italian brand creating cruelty-free outerwear. They replace goose-down feathers to line jackets with PLUMTECH® which keeps the jackets warm and light. The jackets, like this puffer vest, are easily foldable and great for travel. They have options for both genders.

Other online resources that cover clothing, shoes, accessories and beauty:

Ethica: An online retailer that gives the low-down on ethical fashion and emerging designers while offering a curated list of labels to shop from. Their ‘stories’ section keeps the dialogue alive.

Modavanti: Online retailer that speaks the language of sustainable and ethical fashion. They offer a unique ‘badge’ system—one of the eight badges is vegan—and for a brand to retail on this site, they need to have at least one of the badges.

Ethical Elephant: Started by animal welfare advocate Vicky Ly, the blog covers makeup, skincare and hair brands.

PETA.org: The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals keeps a tab on the cruelty-free brands and PETA Mall has a directory of them across fashion and beauty and including health and food. Countries have their own local PETA chapters as well.

The Bright Side of Sunny

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, July 31, 2018 as “Sunny Leone’s Business Calendar

Sunny Leone, Canadian-born Indian-American actress, model, entrepreneur and former porn star represents the intriguing sexual freedom that Indians lack. Today, 37-year-old Leone—who gave up her adult film career in 2013, a year after her Bollywood debut with Pooja Bhatt’s erotic thriller Jism 2—has a string of brand endorsements, splashed across buses, billboards, dailies, television channels and going viral on the Internet. She is the star of her autobiographical web series, Karenjit Kaur – The Untold Story of Sunny Leone which released last month on Zee5. Overt sexuality has always had a tenuous relationship with Indian society. In a country where sex is considered entertainment—albeit behind closed doors, or bawdy and obscene when explored in public—there is a vicarious pleasure in watching, being associated with and fantasising about someone who is willing to bare it all. But is that all there is?

The face of causes
The anti-smoking ad film, 11 Minutes (2016) captures Leone’s appeal in India through the last wish of a man (theatre actor Deepak Dobriyal) dying of the consequences of cigarette smoking. He wants to be with a woman: Leone arrives like an oft-rendered caricature of a coy village bride. The public-service campaign—which uses stereotypes to engage, and set the stage for the anti-climax—crossed one million views on YouTube in 48 hours, reaching two million views in three days, as reported on media and advertising news site, Afaqs!. And that is not surprising, given that Leone—who incidentally doesn’t smoke—has been, on more than one occasion, the most Google-searched person in India.

The female bosom forms the story behind Leone’s public service campaign #DetectToDefeat (2016) by digital media channel Aur Dikhao, to promote breast cancer awareness. The ad captures the deeply uncomfortable male gaze in India, ending with a, presumably, topless Leone looking into the mirror, saying: “If we women paid as much attention to our breasts as men do, breast cancer cases would reduce to half.”

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Leone has been associated for almost six years with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India. Her 2017 campaign has her, with musician-husband Daniel Weber, in what has been described on the PETA site as “wearing little more than high heels and tattoos between them,” advocating “Ink Not Mink.” On the effectiveness of Leone as an endorser, Sachin Bangera, associate director of celebrity and public relations, PETA India, says: “Calls and emails started pouring in after (Sunny) Leone’s campaign on the adoption of homeless dogs and cats, asking us about the procedure to do so. Close to 15,000 people joined the online campaign to help ailing elephant Gajraj after Leone shared his condition on social media. Gajraj has since been rescued.”

The power of titillation
While Leone’s persona drives the public service campaigns, it is the interest and controversies sparked over her Manforce condom ads playing on objectification of the female body, which fuel her power as a headline-grabber. On the Manforce condoms’ official YouTube channel, Leone’s popularity is on the rise: their 2014 dotted condoms ad with Leone shows over 3.1 million views in four years, while their flavoured condoms ad, Man Kyun Behka, from last year clocked over 2.2 million views in one year alone.

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Besides being an entrepreneur and the face for her own line of clothes, perfume (Lust) and makeup (Star Struck launched March 2018 and is PETA-certified), Leone has endorsed a wide range of products that include Chase mobile phones, Iarra sunglasses, Dholpur Fresh desi ghee, energy drinks like Gold Fogg by R Z International and XXX by Viiking Ventures, online jewellery portal Jewelsouk.com, Big Boy Toyz pre-owned sports and luxury cars, and Mehak Kesar Shilajit pan masala. The “A” grade luxury brands may not touch her with a pole but new FMCG brands evidently find her attractive.

Veteran celebrity photographer, Dabboo Ratnani, who has worked with Sunny Leone, regularly gets requests from people asking for an introduction to her. “Leone’s endorsement creates a strong image change for the brand—she effectively challenges the status quo, immediately creating a buzz,” says Ratnani. Speaking about the Gold Fogg energy drink campaign, Rahul Vinakiya, managing director, R Z International, has said on Afaqs!, “We opted for (Sunny) Leone as our brand ambassador as she perfectly suits our brand tagline ‘Live Your Way’. She completely believes in living life on her terms.” Says Leone in an article in the Indian Express this year, “I don’t think I have ever done my work worrying about people judging me.”

Leone who has grown up playing street hockey with the boys and is, as of last year, the co-owner and brand ambassador of Premier Futsal franchise Kerala Cobras, puts her game face on for Torque Pharmaceuticals’ JAL mineral water. In the ad film, a clean-faced, pony-tailed Leone is described by a male voice-over as, “a diva, a fighter, on the top of her game.” The video ends with a camera focusing on ever-so-bouncy breasts in the background and the bottle in the foreground with Leone saying: “Kyunki, jal hi jeevan hai” (Because water is life).

Veteran image guru, Dilip Cherian, finds that Leone checks all the three boxes to be a successful brand endorser: ‘Risqué’ value, resonance and reach. “Leone is someone who has confronted the reality of who she is. Her risqué factor is 9.8—there is nothing further to be revealed, and therefore the downside is zero. Her name has resonance and her reach is global and immense.” But above all, in an era where the smartphone has brought porn into every home, Leone represents the new reality of openness in Indian society. He says, “She is a woman to boldly go where no man has gone.” As Leone notes, in her web series, in response to the question about how some Indians can’t differentiate between a prostitute and a porn star, “There is one similarity…guts.”

The girl next door
Leone—who is admittedly bisexual—is a girl you can take home to your mother. Shocking as that may sound, keeping her fair, chiselled face and the in-your-face augmented breasts aside, probably a part of her appeal, locally, lies in her easy “next-doorness”. Her web series suggests that she is just another girl, ridiculed in school, who made a tough—and unorthodox—choice. With 13.9 million followers on her Instagram, what you gauge from Leone’s posts is a girl who separates her work life from her personal life. There are stuffed toys, pink roses for Valentine’s Day, goofy moments, and gym snapshots. She demystifies her work life, by capturing the steamy visuals with little jokes: a behind-the-scenes picture of her in a bathtub from the shoot of the reality survival show Man vs Wild, has the tongue-in-cheek caption: “Just lying around at work”. Her styling has mass appeal, she is not a star with sharp dance moves or serious acting chops, but her aura—a “good” girl who knows when and how to be “bad”—circumvents it all, and allows her to reign in the over-a-crore-price-tag endorsement category.

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Leone, born Karenjit Kaur Vohra, married Weber in 2011. She posts photos of them as a regular couple, often remarking on how “handsome” he is, or how he is the “sweetest man” she knows. In March 2018, she posted a photo of them in blue jeans and a white tee—a classic all-American family—with their three children, including the newly-born-via-surrogacy twins. At the time of this story, Leone is unable to respond because, as informed by her agent, she has “taken some time off from everything” to be with the children.

We tend to gravitate towards authenticity and Leone’s life, even while rife with Hindu immorality, is real, exciting and aspirational. Not because everyone wants to be a porn star, rather, because she is, like Vinakiya said, living life on her own terms. In a society that imposes restrictions on everything from food to marriage, Leone represents that elusive freedom, all the while being the girl a man would perhaps aspire to have…next door.

The Natural Shade Card of Indian Fashion

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, July 23, 2018

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“If you travel where most of the world manufactures denim, you end up with having rivers that are turning blue,” says the founder of the premium Canadian brand Dutil Denim, Erik Dickstein, in the environmental documentary RiverBlue (2016). This is not the natural blue of beautiful Instagram travel photos but rather the harsh ‘filter’ of insoluble Azo dyes and hazardous chemicals like mercury, cadmium and lead from the fabric dyes used in the fashion industry. These chemicals are killing marine life and creating chronic illnesses like cancer and sensory loss in people.

While today most of the mass-manufactured clothes are made with toxic chemical dyes, until the late 19th century all dyes were made naturally through plants, insects or shellfish—the art of natural dyeing thrived in the Indian subcontinent.

Indigo, sourced from the indigofera flowering plant, creates blues and greens and is considered ‘magical’ because it lends itself to a range of hues and all kinds of fibres. Santanu Das, for Kolkata-based sustainable label Maku, uses only natural indigo: “It is a difficult colour to work with, but it is also neutral and liked by all. It cannot be controlled—it is impossible to get an identical shade. That by itself is human and philosophical. It forces you to understand the limitations of a medium and craft and to take a step forward.”

While India has perfected colours like red and black—made from madder root and iron filings respectively—and in combination with other substances created hundreds of natural tints, Das believes that the natural shade card of India comprises “the seven different colours of white”. He adds, “We have a huge culture of wearing undyed things: dye is a luxury, as is pattern and printing.”

A number of Indian designers today have embraced kora (undyed) fabric and natural dyes as a part of their sustainable fashion initiatives as a manifesto, like Goa-based OmArts; as a part of capsule collections like Ahmedabad-based Tilla; or comprising a large portion of the collections, like Mumbai-based Anavila Misra’s linens (for label Anavila) which showcase undyed fabric or natural indigo, while other pieces use Azo-free chemical dyes.

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Today, in India, centres and artisans in Kutch, Bengal, Goa, Pondicherry and Hyderabad among others are working with natural dyes. In the sustainable fashion collections showcased at Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort ’18 under the Usha Silai label, Amit Vijaya and Richard Pandav teamed up with women who are known for their work in natural dyes from a region near Jaipur.

Rekha Bhati and Nikki Kali of Kishmish, who work with the NGO Kala Swaraj, believe, “Everything has energy. If the process of making a garment is thoughtful, with kindness to the planet, you can feel it when you wear it.” Besides being good for the environment, naturally-dyed fabrics are a healthier option. Kolkata-based designer Divya Sheth points out, “Dyes penetrate our bodies; natural dyes like those made from turmeric and madder are not only therapeutic but also nourish and replenish the skin.”

But a naturally-dyed garment is not without challenges. Das, who dyes yarn in his workshop before sending it out for weaving, says, “There are no shortcuts for natural dyes—people don’t like to use them because it is a nightmare to work with them. The colour bleeds and fades. They cannot retain the colour ever after.” Sheth, who uses natural dyeing for 85 percent of her textiles, agrees that the process is tricky. “There’s a scarcity of artists, it is a tedious and laborious (manual) process. The colours change batch wise — the inconsistency means that no two garments would ever be the same. As much as we love this, some unaware clients take this as a defect.”

Soham Dave for his eponymous Ahmedabad-based sustainable label that works with Kutch-based artisans for dyeing avoids chemical dyes as much as possible. He stresses upon thinking about the entire process of production over dyes in isolation. He admits that the natural dyeing process is more expensive, as it involves a lot of rejection and handling, with dependency on the unpredictability of nature—wind or pollutants in water may impact the production. He says, “I have not come across many successful ways to mass produce it.”

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Scale perhaps is the biggest consideration of naturally-dyed garments, along with the considerable need for freshwater. Ruby Ghuznavi, activist and advocate for craft and natural dyes in Bangladesh, points out in a conversation with colour specialist Fiona Coleman in an interview on The Kindcraft, an independent online magazine, “There is a limit to the capacity you can produce. If you increase the capacity, there’s a danger you’ll lose the quality. And because we’re starting to make our colour solution from scratch every morning, there are a lot of points at which the process can go wrong. The minute you start making 1,000 pieces instead of 100, maybe one or two will not be colourfast.”

Designers like Aratrik Dev Varman of Tilla grapple with how a naturally-dyed garment is perceived in the market. Says Dev Varman, “You have to tell people to expect natural blemishes and fading of colours. It would be misleading to compare it to something that is chemically dyed in a factory. The challenge is educating and convincing people that despite all this, it is still a better product.” A consumer who has been conditioned to appreciate industrial homogenised products and accept it as the benchmark of perfection and quality is unlikely to embrace the uniqueness of a handmade, naturally-dyed garment which will age gracefully.

And yet, Coleman on The Kindcraft, perhaps referring to a more evolved British consumer with regard to sustainability, believes that education has changed customers and, if it is marketed as a natural product or a natural dye, the consumer would be happy to have that inconsistency. That may be a sign of things to come in India. In the standardised Pantone world of today, the variations that are seen in a naturally-dyed fabric are a call to celebrate the beauty of imperfections, just as nature would have it.

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Brief Timeline Of Natural Dyes In The Indian Subcontinent

2600 BCE Natural dyeing techniques developed during the Indus Valley civilisation and spread worldwide through trade routes.

1498
 Vasco da Gama discovered the maritime route to India. Indigo was the first valuable ‘spice’ to be exported by Portuguese traders.

Mughal Era (16th-18th centuries)
 Natural dyeing techniques developed finesse under the patronage of the Mughal emperors, who particularly loved indigo which gave the popular blues and greens.

The 19th century Bengal became the world’s main source of indigo.

1856
 The discovery of aniline dyes by British scientist William Henry Perkin, and their spread to colonial countries. It led to post-independence India no longer retaining its tradition of natural dyes except in a few rural communities.

1859
 Unjust production methods led to the Blue Mutiny during the British Raj.

1897
 German company BASF launched the synthetic ‘Indigo Pure BASF’ in the market.

The 70s
 Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay initiated the movement for the revival and promotion of natural dyes in India (and Bangladesh).

1990 Activist and advocate for craft and natural dyes, Ruby Ghuznavi, started fair-trade organisation Aranya in Bangladesh, which has 3000 artisans.

2009 
Dr Himadri Debnath, deputy director of the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) in Kolkata, found a unique 15-volume set (with 3500 samples) of Specimens of Fabrics Dyed with Indian Dyes compiled by British Victorian dyer Thomas Wardle, which was believed to have been lost.

2013
 Colours of Nature, Auroville—which began manufacturing natural blue jeans with organic indigo dye and local cotton yarn in 1993 collaborated with Levi’s to launch the first truly organic 511 jeans.

— Compiled from Marg’s Colours of Nature: Dyes From The Indian Subcontinent (December 2013)

Examples of Sources of Natural Dyes

Blue and Green: Indigofera plant, neel and woad leaves, girardinia fibre.

Red: Cochineal, lac insect, root and bark of mulberry, madder root, henna leaf, red beet, sappan, red sandalwood, walnut shell, bark and leaf, Indian almond tree bark.

Yellow: Himalayan rhubarb root, marigold flower, pomegranate peel, mango, lodh, saffron, turmeric, ivy bark, cotton flower, teak leaf.

Purple: Muricidae sea snails, logwood.

Brown: Octopus, cuttlefish, cutch tree, amla, ginger root.

Black: Iron and jaggery, sal bark, marking nut.

QUICK CARE TIP

A naturally-dyed garment needs personal care. Hand-wash with cold water using a mild detergent, or better yet, reetha (Soapnut).

 

Cruelty-Free Closet

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, July 23, 2018
(Additional media added to this post.)

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Is it surprising that a country with more vegetarians than the rest of the world put together isn’t a prime market for cruelty-free fashion? Perhaps not. In India, being vegetarian in diet and branded in lifestyle has equal social footing. Genuine leather and silk, and branded goods that use these products are de rigueur. After all, India is the largest consumer and the second largest producer of pure silk in the world.

Pure silk made by boiling silkworms to extract thread; genuine leather, suede and fur made from animal skin including those of endangered species; natural or cultured pearls extracted by prying open and inserting irritants into live oyster shells; pillows and jackets that use plucked bird feathers; products made with red dye that comes from crushing cochineal beetles; testing of beauty products on live animals are among the regular items that cause harm to living beings on their journey to us. While deep followers of religious texts like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism describe ahimsa, the concept of ‘non-violence against all life forms’, as open to interpretation and customarily linked to what is ingested rather than worn.

Western culture has opened up the dialogue on vegetarianism or veganism as secular-ethical choices that trickle to every aspect of one’s life. Musician and PETA supporter, Prince, famously said, “Compassion is an action word with no boundaries,” and refused a fan who tried to give him a leather coat during a concert, saying, “Please do not kill a cow so I can wear a coat!”

In India, the deeply entrenched class system has filtered into the post-liberalisation lifestyle as well. Gandhian beliefs are relics to an increasingly brand-conscious society that draws self-worth from icons of status. Hyderabad-based Kusuma Rajaiah, who holds a patent for eco-friendly mulberry ahimsa silk—silk made without harming pupae—states that while his business has grown from 2 lacs per annum to 1 crore per annum in less than two decades, nearly all of his ahimsa silk fabric is produced for export. It may not be within the local psychology to accept the shift, after all, pure silk, due to its natural sheen and texture, has always been considered to be a symbol of royalty, and, historically, was used primarily by the upper classes. So what chance do ‘cheap’ artificial materials have? Faux fur, made from cellulose or synthetic fibers; pleather (polyurethane); ultrasuede, made from vegan microfiber; or vegan silk, made from synthetic, bamboo or man-made yarn, may not always match up to the ‘real’ thing.

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Pervasively, Indian shopping choices are linked to value. Indians would not be willing to pay top rupee for something not ‘genuine’ and to get high-quality artificial goods and designs can become pricey. Says Sugandh Agrawal of New York-based vegan brand, Gunas, who has spent eight years researching the sweet spot between a viable price point and enduring fabric, “No one wants to pay good money for durable leather alternatives, and the cheaper alternatives peel off. Besides, it is not a priority to invest in a vegan bag.” The starting price for a Gunas shoulder bag is $100 and can go up to $250. Stella McCartney, the world’s first ‘vegetarian’ luxury brand (2001) has nailed style as well as gone deep with the materials. For example, their Falabella Go backpack is created using recycled polyester fabric made from ocean plastic and costs $935.

Vanity and status may play a prominent role, but the most consequential factors in making this decision are simply awareness and deep conditioning, along with the non-existent need to question or defy tradition and rituals. Gurgaon-based professional, Zeal Sharma, who is a Certified Main Street Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, finds with people she coaches and speaks to, that people don’t realise how they may be a part of an industry that has commercialised the exploitation of animals. Many people believe that leather goods come from dead animals, and they don’t question bone china crockery or down feather duvets, despite the self-evident names. “Leather isn’t a by-product. It is the most important co-product of the meat industry. In India, where most of the world’s leather comes from, cows often march hundreds of miles in extreme dust and heat to slaughter, without a single drop of water or food. Workers break cows’ tails and rub chilli pepper into their eyes in order to force them to keep on walking after they have collapsed from exhaustion,” says Stella McCartney in a video for PETA.

“Lack of awareness coupled with hidden facts and our inherent naïveté that ‘good’ companies would do the ‘right’ thing have led to an increase of these products. Moreover, they are easily accessible and now we are habituated to them,” is Sharma’s experience. Eventually, it boils down to change and the will to do so. While PETA India’s website lists approved vegan fashion labels, and even talks about vegan weddings in India, evidently demand follows supply. As Gunas waits to find an Indian partner to launch in the founder’s home country, Agrawal notes that even her extended family hesitates to make the leap. Perhaps it will take a celebrity ‘Gandhian’ fashion icon to set the bag rolling on this concept.