The Warp & The Weft

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Published: Taj Magazine, Volume 2, 2018-19

India’s once vibrant and sustainable textile ecosystem may have receded with the drifts of social, economic and political change. A new vigour brought about by a revivified contemporary aesthetic may yet turn the tide, says Sitanshi Talati-Parikh.

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The rich texture of thousands of years of Indian culture seeps in like a natural, yet permanent dye in its fabric and woven traditions. It is a symbolic thread that connects the nation in its diversity; perhaps a striking case where tradition marks culture, where craft describes history and where colours speak of the passage of time —of lives lived and memories created.

Weaves, threadwork and textile decoration, among other indigenous crafts spin yarns —even if coloured with the emotions of the artisans — describing the local life. Influenced deeply by the local socio-economic-political environment, but also linked to moments of celebration, like festivals and weddings. The craft, in some cases, has been a rite of passage: a woman decorates her own trousseau that becomes a part of the dowry she takes with her when she gets married.

While over centuries, communities have survived because of their traditional crafts, these have faced erosion in many ways. As Gautam Vazirani, strategist and curator — sustainable fashion at IMG Reliance/ Lakmé Fashion Week, points out, “Many of our local techniques have changed in the last few decades in terms of authenticity of practice, either at the raw material level or in the original process, or in the woven design approach. Only true craft connoisseurs and historians can highlight the state of many languishing crafts today.”

Shefalee Vasudev, the editor of The Voice of Fashion, a digital destination that explores the intersection of fashion and culture, finds that while there are crafts slipping away from us for varied reasons, perhaps not everything needs to be sustained simply because it once existed. She says, “It has to be seen what can be produced, created and have a sense of utilitarian as well as aesthetic value in the contemporary arts and crafts scenario and then sustained or revived.”

The Changing Colours of Dyes

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Until the late 19th century, the art of natural dyeing—using natural sources like plants, insects or shellfish—thrived in the Indian subcontinent. Indigo (derived from the indigofera flowering plant) lends itself to the fantastical peacock-plume tones of the country. In the 19th century, Bengal was the world’s main source of indigo. The advent of aniline dyes in 1856 by British scientist William Henry Perkin, and their spread to colonial countries, led to post-independence India no longer retaining its tradition of natural dyes with the exception of a few rural communities.

Revival movements in the 1970s by social reformer and freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and in the 1990s by activist and advocate for craft and natural dyes, Ruby Ghuznavi, initiated the change. But the discovery in 2009 by Dr Himadri Debnath, deputy director of the Botanical Survey of India in Kolkata, of a unique 15-volume set (with 3,500 samples) of Specimens of Fabrics Dyed with Indian Dyes, compiled by British Victorian dyer Thomas Wardle, and believed to have been lost, was pathbreaking to understanding the rich history of natural dyes in India.

Today, conscious designers are willing to pick up the mantle once more. Kolkata-based Maku has brought back the splendour of natural indigo, and brands like Delhi-based 11.11/eleven eleven and Ahmedabad-based Soham Dave only use natural dyes; while Colours of Nature (Auroville) collaborated with Levi’s to launch the first truly organic 511 jeans made with organic indigo dye and local cotton yarn in 2013.

The Art of Fabric Decoration

In contemporary times, industrialised, machine-made versions have largely replaced India’s traditional, rich and varied embroidery forms. The art was popular during the Mughal empire, and Indian floral motifs have influenced British embroidery, including the popular paisley shawls. Colonial demand subsequently led to mass-production and reduction of the handcrafted process which could take months.

Not restricted to garments, forms of embroidery appear on wallhangings, home furnishings, fashion accessories and textiles. Mostly inspired by nature and local life, prints and thread-work would create patterns in vibrant colours often embellished with zari (precious gold or silver thread-work) or varak (precious gold or silver foiling). Genuine varak printing on fabric is very rare today and reportedly there are only two artisans in Jaipur who still practice the art.

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As handmade items are reclaimed as new embodiments of luxury, and local runways are reviving many of the handcrafted techniques, many of these old decorative textile styles have been lost forever—like the Tanjore paintings on fabric using precious materials, which have inspired many offshoots but are no longer available in their original form. The Kodali Karuppura saris, created in a small town in Tamil Nadu, mainly for the Thanjavur nobility, have, Vasudev points out, completely vanished. The hand-painted and naturally-dyed textile flourished under the patronage of the Maratha rulers of Tanjore—today, a few samples can be seen in museums in India and abroad.

While designers like Kolkata-based Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Mumbai-based Anita Dongre have taken up the mantle of India’s embroidery tradition—Dongre has found a way to contemporarise it with brocade dresses and traditional embroidery on western silhouettes—the local craft has also found glamour on international runways. Belgian couturier Dries van Noten has had an embroidery workshop in Kolkata since 1987, while brands like Valentino, Gucci, Givenchy, Balmain, Ralph Lauren and Christian Dior, among many others, work with Mumbai-based trade embroidery companies to this day.

The gara style of embroidery on traditional Parsi saris had been losing popularity and been replaced by machine-made versions—due in part to the diminishing Parsi community and the painstaking process—until there was a renewed interest in the form, along with its use on accessories and the modernizing efforts by designers like Ashdeen Lilaowala. Even as insurgency hit the supply of local craft, Srinagarand-Delhi-based Kashmir Loom by Asaf Ali and Jenny Housego has, successfully contemporized their traditional handwork on cashmere shawls, by incorporating global colours and designs with the age-old techniques, in what they state is, “Preserving heritage while fostering its progress.”

The art of Kalamkari (drawing with a pen) includes stories and mythological tales told on fabric using natural dyes. Kolkata-based designer, Divya Sheth, brings back nature-inspired kalamkari work on her runway pieces.

Sheth says of the experience, “I have had the chance to witness the joy and ease with which the artisans create their masterpieces. The ladies start painting once they complete their daily chores.”

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Handloom Tales

With minister of textiles, Smriti Irani, throwing her support behind Indian handlooms, and the shutterbugs catching the likes of Indian cinema veterans Kangana Ranaut, Sonam Kapoor and Vidya Balan in handloom saris, one accepts that the loom is in focus again and this time, not with the elements that defined the ‘Khadi’ look.

The charkha, or the handloom spinning wheel has a strong symbolic element: while it suggests economic empowerment, it is also an element of the country’s freedom struggle representing self-sufficiency, as well as unity and alliance—it forms the crux between an ecosystem of farmers, weavers, distributors, and consumers.

Among the nomads of Ladakh or in the hills of Kashmir, life and the act of weaving are deeply linked. For instance, in Ladakh, the woven cloth is linked to the birth of a child, where the warp (representing the man) and the weft (the woman) in harmony lead to the creation of new life. And yet, there is a long way to go for the new lease of life of the handloom garment.

Today, Indian artisans are facing a tremendous challenge from the advent of the power loom and machine-made garments. For instance, much of the famous Kota Doria textile in Kota, Rajasthan, is being woven without the real sari (that was a signature material) and the fabric itself is being made in power loom and not in the traditional handloom (for commercial reasons). However, as Vazirani points out, Craftmark’s initiative with Kota Women Weavers is in the process of reviving traditional weaving techniques with genuine materials.

Tribal textiles have been impacted, and consequently the local economy. Vazirani, who has worked extensively in the north-eastern region of India, points out that there has been a shift to acrylic yarns and fabric for weaving instead of cotton, silk and wool yarns, with a mutation of woven designs due to changes in cultural, economic and environmental conditions.

Vasudev brings up techniques that may be lost, like the painstaking Dakmanda weave of the Garo tribe in Meghalaya. Even as the industry in the North East has the highest concentration of handlooms in the country—over 53 percent of looms and more than 50 percent of the weavers live in this region—it is fraught with challenges including poor supply chain management.

Vazirani says, “There is a good opportunity to address the challenges and find sustainable solutions through the Action Plan on North-East India Report—an initiative in partnership with the United Nations in India and IMG Reliance—for the mainstream industry.” And as handloom hits the runway, one may also credit the persistent and long-standing efforts of conscious designers.

For instance, designers like New Delhi-based Rajesh Pratap Singh revert to the old traditional techniques—setting up the loom to make the garment and weaving it from the start. In fact, when Singh’s looms are empty, he uses it to make saris to ensure sustainability not only of craft and thread but also of the iconic garment. Designers like Delhi-based David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore of label Abraham & Thakore and Rahul Misra; as well as labels like Bodice, which won the 2017/18 International Woolmark prize for womenswear, and Raw Mango are among the many designers adopting handmade textiles and handcrafted garments. Misra’s motto is clear on his website: “My objective is to create jobs which help people in their own villages, I take work to them rather than calling them to work for me. If villages are stronger you will have a stronger country, a stronger nation, and a stronger world.”

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The Frugality of Fashion

An intrinsic part of indigenous craft used to be the considered use of materials. Cyclical production was a part of the natural ethos of the communities, as what was made was in direct relation to demand. In India, such thrift is not new: saris and dupattas are used in the manner in which they come off the loom, while designs like ponchos and kalidar clothes are constructed keeping the wastage of fabric to a minimum.

And yet, today, approximately 120 billion square metres of fabric end up as waste in India, China and Bangladesh alone, not including garment rejections during quality checks. Knowing this, Delhi-based Kriti Tula of label Doodlage says she upcycles up to 600 kilograms of waste fabric every month. Designers like Karishma Shahani Khan, the founder of Pune-based label Ka-Sha, in her ‘Heart to Haat’ ideology works with her own scrap and that of industry friends’ material in footwear, stuffed toys, embroidery, patchwork, macramé and bags.

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The State of Workers

While sustainability in terms of keeping craft and knowledge and enterprise alive is important—we are constantly reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” A year-long research project called the Garment Worker Diaries that included field study in Bengaluru, India, reported on the sorry state of the garment workers; mostly women.

Long hours, being forced to do more work than their allotted quota, lower pay and verbal abuse were unveiled in the report. In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh—which housed five garment factories supplying global brands—saw the death of 1138 people while 2500 were injured, which should be a sufficient wake-up call for the fashion industry.

Today, designers are reportedly making attempts to work directly with cooperatives, like Mumbai-based brand Kishmish with NGO Kala Swaraj and designer Samant Chauhan for the cause of master weavers in his native Bhagalpur, in Bihar. Reportedly, Gaurang Shah works with over 700 weavers across India and The Goodloom by GOCOOP enables a direct connection between handloom cooperatives and artisans. There is a growing, if nascent, push towards better labour and environmental standards and more transparent supply chains, with the advent of global organizations like Fashion Revolution in India.

Demand and Supply

Vasudev points out that the general awareness of what sustainability in fashion means is very poor, and it slants merely towards that which is organic and natural. She believes that to say India is realigning itself towards sustainability would be a premature remark because the masses are not aligned with it. “The sustainability manifestos are lost; they have to be brought together and pushed in a contemporary format and I do not see that happening very much, even as the sustainability argument is staggered with clued-in fashion designers and manufacturers,” says Vasudev.

While it hasn’t reached mainstream consumption, consciousness is growing among a certain audience, as awareness continues to increase. Niche retailers like Paper Boat Collective in Goa, Toile in Mumbai and pan-India brands like Good Earth Sustain and Nicobar make attempts in individual ways to be mindful— in choice of products, materials and packaging. The Auroville market in Pondicherry supports a sustainable ethic—supply and demand work in tandem with mindfully crafted goods versus mass-produced ones.

And so, we may hope that more people begin to lean towards what Vazirani strives for: “An awakening and appreciation of the wealth we have in our country in terms of our artisans and the beautiful textiles that they are capable of weaving without any luxury facilities or formal education. An understanding of who we are, when we say Indian fashion, and establishing our own independent sense of style. It is feeling of pride in wearing the Khadi shirt, or the handwoven Indigo-dyed dress, or the Dabu hand-printed saree instead of a Western high-street outfit. Nowhere in the world can we get access to the luxury of genuine handmade as we still do in India.”

We can also work toward a socially conscious and sustainable fashion ethic so that Indian fashion undergoes a shift towards what Vazirani calls a “fashion consciousness—where what you wear makes a commitment to a higher ideal beyond its hanger value or glamour.”

Link to PDF of the story. The Warp and the Weft – Taj Magazine 2019

Christie’s: The Modern Connoisseur, The Art of the Sari

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Event: Christie’s India evening discussion on The Modern Connoisseur: The Art of the Sari
November 27, 2018, at Christie’s Mumbai

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I had the opportunity to share the stage with Mumbai-based conscious designer Anavila Misra who has risen to rapid popularity over her linen saris (among other linen garments). She uses a mix of natural dyes, undyed fabric and AZO-free chemical dyes. The linen fabric is hand-woven and made by local artisans.

At the invite of Sonal Singh, head of Christie’s India, I led a conversation with Anavila, talking about the sari as a modern garment and linen as a fabric. Tracing the history of the garment, to its modern space today, Anavila spoke about its relevance and its evolution.

We touched upon topics that included:

  • The fabric of India—is it subtler today? In colour, embroidery and aesthetic?
  • The story behind Anavila’s love affair with linen.
  • How has linen changed the perception of fall and drape? Technically and symbolically with respect to silhouettes.
  • Is the modern Indian garment or textile more sustainable? What does that mean?
  • The significance of the sari in India and how we may bring the sari back to daily use from occasion-led wear.

Video coming soon. Watch this space.

Man-made diamonds—soon in a store near you

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Published: Mint Lounge, Saturday, December 1 edition

Created diamonds may lack the story and romance of mined ones, but they are sustainable

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On 5 December, The (Red) Diamond, a man-made all-diamond ring with no metal, will be auctioned by Sotheby’s, expecting to raise between $150,000-250,000 (around ₹1-1.7 crore). While the solid sparkling block—which is expected to have an unprecedented 2,000-3,000 facets—has been created by the Diamond Foundry, a San Francisco-based start-up that counts actor Leonardo DiCaprio among its investors and is designed in part by Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, it is the auction house which lends authenticity to the hitherto contested diamond form.

Retail man-made or lab-grown diamonds came into unprecedented focus in May, when the De Beers Group—the once-monopolistic diamond-exploration, mining, retail, trading and industrial manufacturing company—introduced the lab-grown diamond brand, Lightbox, in the market. In a path-breaking move for the tightly controlled industry, De Beers, the world’s largest miner, has begun selling “above-ground” diamonds at $800 a carat (mined diamonds can cost anywhere from $1,000-20,000 per carat).

The myth of rarity

Lightbox has positioned lab-grown diamonds to be a “not rare” counterpart to mined diamonds, suggesting on their website that these are a fun, accessible form of diamonds for “lighter moods and lighter moments”. “We’re prosecco, not Champagne; street-style, not red carpet; for friends, not fiancées,” said Sally Morrison, chief marketing officer for Lightbox, as reported by Luxury Society, at the jewellery industry’s leading annual trade event JCK Las Vegas in July. David Johnson, head of strategic communications for the De Beers group, emphasizes, “Lightbox will only be a relatively small business for De Beers Group, running adjacent to our core business in natural diamonds.” And yet, their press release earlier this year stated that De Beers had enabled the construction of a $94 million facility in Oregon, USA, which, when fully functional, will produce upwards of 500,000 rough carats of lab-grown diamonds a year.

De Beers, which pioneered the concept “real is rare”, has had the technology to make lab-created diamonds for three decades with their industrial manufacturing company Element Six. In fact, diamonds were first artificially created in the 1950s for industrial use by companies like General Electric. They have only recently become viable, through technology, to be used in fine jewellery. So what are lab-grown, man-made, created, cultured or above-ground diamonds? Intrinsically, they are exactly the same as a mined diamond. They are not fake—there is no chemical, visual or structural difference and they are both composed of incredibly pure crystal carbon as a single crystal. Depending on colour and size, it can take one-three months to create a lab-grown diamond, by simulating the conditions that it would take for a diamond to be formed naturally in earth. In fact, the July Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruling, which dropped the word “natural” from the definition of a diamond, makes it impossible for them to be called anything other than a diamond anymore.

But they are not to be confused with substances like cubic zirconia, moissanite and Swarovski crystals, that are similar in appearance but differ completely in composition.

While mined and created diamonds are exactly the same, most consumers tend to believe what De Beers has conditioned us to consider—the rarity of a mined diamond, which is purely perception. A February 1982 article in The Atlantic, “Have you ever tried to sell a diamond?”, exposed the cartel-like control that De Beers has over demand and supply. With the heavy decline in diamond purchases in the early 20th century, De Beers, according to the article, devised a multi-fold global plan to increase demand via a carefully constructed perception of rarity (by controlling the supply), an illusion of price stability (by setting global standards) along with perpetuating the desirability of diamonds. In the 1940s, a well-orchestrated diamond advertising campaign—the iconic “A Diamond Is Forever”—literally saved the floundering diamond industry and popularized the sentiment that diamonds, with their assumed rarity and brilliance, are the true markers of romance.

With the influx of sparkling above-ground diamonds—which can be found mixed with and sold as mined diamonds—retailers in the US provide official, certified options of both diamonds to consumers. Will jewellers in other countries follow suit? Johnson insists, “Forevermark, a premium natural diamond brand, does not sell laboratory-grown diamond products, and will not do so in the future.” Large local retailers like Tanishq do not anticipate the market primed for change either. “I do not see man-made diamonds replacing mined diamonds,” says Sandeep Kulhalli, senior vice-president retail and marketing jewellery division, Tanishq. “They lack the story and romance, the mystery and rarity of diamonds that the industry has collectively and painstakingly built over 100 years.”

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Creating awareness

What may tip the scale in favour of man-made diamonds is that they are at least 30% cheaper—with further lower prices in the wholesale market. ALTR Created Diamonds, headed by the India-born-New-York-based Amish Shah, has been producing created diamond jewellery for US retailers—like the Warren Buffett-owned Borsheims and Helzberg. As they only grow type-II A diamonds (which are akin to the best-quality diamonds made of pure carbon, like the Kohinoor diamond), the gems boast an unparalleled sparkle. Moreover, with the size upgrade made possible by the pricing, they are finding favour in the international bridal (solitaire ring) market.

Companies like ALTR are betting on the “bigger and better” game. Shah believes that affordability of created diamonds is the main reason behind his retailers’ growing sales figures. He says, “The perception of the consumer has been built by years of exposure to mined diamonds. A created diamond is everything a diamond can be, but better.”

There’s also a question about sustainability. While mined-diamond companies argue about the fossil fuel consumption in producing above-ground diamonds, Diamond Foundry is a certified carbon neutral company, and Shah states that ALTR uses wind turbine energy and has provided jobs to more people as a result of the high demand. Mined diamonds may have withstood the stigma of unsustainable mining over decades, but consumers may no longer want to turn a blind eye to the potential risks of mined diamonds if there are other alternatives.

Shah is confident that consumer perception will change with awareness, particularly when they come in contact with a certified-created diamond, whereupon the illusion of difference vanishes. Kulhalli disagrees. “Consumers may set demand intensity, but retailers and manufacturers drive the supply and trends for precious jewellery with design-led offerings,” he says. “Change can only happen when large retailers take the gamble. Which retailer has the appetite to risk his current, thriving business to offer this option?”

Yet change may be around the corner as ALTR, which makes its diamonds in India, is geared up to enter the local market next year with its creations. Perhaps it will set the stage for thinking about luxury and investment as parallel paths. If you may not, in the future, be able to sell your diamonds at a profit, perhaps your version of the Kohinoor may be a better one to hold on to.

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How can you make a diamond?

HPHT (high pressure, high temperature): By subjecting a genuine diamond “seed” to extreme pressure and temperature, simulating the organic process and conditions in which they are created below the earth’s surface.

CVD (chemical vapour deposition): Similar to 3D-printing, where carbon is layered on top of a genuine diamond “seed” in a vacuum chamber. This is a popular form of diamond creation for colourless diamonds, and can consistently produce type-II A diamonds.

Who Pays For Your Fashion?

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, November 13, 2018

The Garment Worker Diaries collected from data on the lives of those who make our clothes unveil harsh truths. 

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“Usha and her Indian counterparts reported far higher levels of verbal abuse in the workplace than did the women in Dhaka or Phnom Penh. And women in India consistently reported being forced to do more work than their allotted quota for the day.” This is from a documented report (available on workerdiaries.org), filed after a year-long research project from mid-2016 to mid-2017 called the Garment Worker Diaries (GWD) which collected data on the lives of garment workers in India, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Usha and the other workers in Bengaluru, which was where the study was conducted locally, work 48 hours a week or less—which is substantial, but far less than the women in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

The directors of the GWD write how hundreds of thousands of workers labour long hours in the hope of receiving minimum wage, which is set at $105 per month for India (roughly ₹7,600), and yet, labour-rights advocates say that workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India often receive less than the minimum wage. Even if they do receive the minimum wage, the advocates say, it may not be enough for workers who need to pay housing costs and provide themselves and their families with food, health care, and other necessities.

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The Real Picture

The GWD project was led by global non-profit organisations—Microfinance Opportunities in collaboration with Fashion Revolution—and supported by C&A Foundation, a global corporate foundation aiming to transform the fashion industry. Field researchers spent time with 180 garment workers in each of the three countries to learn the intimate details of their lives, including what they earn and buy, how they spend their time each day, and whether they experience any harassment, injuries, or suffer from pain while at the factory. An Indian research firm, which they had worked with before, Morsel, conducted all their fieldwork in India. According to the World Bank, India was the third largest exporter of clothing globally in terms of US dollars in 2015.

Guy Stuart, executive director at Microfinance Opportunities, who led the project, found that there were no great surprises, but there were some patterns that emerged. Of the three locations studied, the Bengaluru workers, who live along Mysore Road, worked disciplined hours: 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. But, they “regularly reported being insulted and humiliated by their supervisors”, says the report. The workers made monthly contributions into the state health insurance and pension systems. Despite ostensibly having health insurance the workers ended up paying for health care out of their own pockets at private clinics because the public clinics were not accessible. Sarah Ditty, head of policy at Fashion Revolution, says, “We were very surprised by the precarious nature of garment workers’ financial livelihoods in all three regions studied. Clearly, their wages are not enough to cover any big, unplanned costs, and they really do appear to live teetering on the edge of poverty and debt.”

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Empowerment Through Information

The outcome they hope for, after this intensive study, is that clothing companies, consumers, factory owners, and policymakers will be able to use the insights identified to understand how the decisions they make affect a garment worker’s condition. This is where Fashion Revolution steps in: to get the data in front of change-makers who can influence the global clothing supply chain, the regulatory environment, and the social protections available to garment workers. Stuart says, “I strongly believe that good information can make a difference in how people view the world and promote social justice. Furthermore, we know the power of the financial diaries in showing how people manage to make ends meet.”

Post the GWD report and blog, Fashion Revolution’s aim is to increase transparency to make informed shopping choices through credible data. They have released case studies, a magazine called ‘Money, Fashion, Power’, a three-part podcast series called “Who Made My Clothes?” and an automated email tool where consumers can send a message to their favourite brands asking them to give garment workers more of a voice.

Eventually, it boils down to impact. Says Ditty, “Tens of thousands of people worldwide have listened to the podcast and read the magazine; thousands of people have used the automated email tool. Some brands have taken the time to provide thoughtful responses about what they’re doing to ensure that garment workers are able to raise concerns about their pay and working conditions.” She states that the GWD data portal is being used as an educational tool in a number of fashion and business universities and is being closely studied by fashion brands and retailers who are using it to have a deeper understanding of the day-to-day reality of the workers in their supply chains. Ditty concludes, “While it’s difficult to tell exactly how this will impact brands’ practices, we know that brands are certainly taking the results of the study seriously.”

As the study tries to humanize these garment workers, can we identify what drives them to continue working the way they do? Says Stuart: “The common thread is simple: they are working hard and earning as much as they can for the sake of their children. They want their children to have a better life and are trying to get them as much education as possible to achieve this.” A lofty aim, on less-than-minimum wage.

Is Sustainable Fashion Affordable?

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, November 8, 2018

Breaking through the misconceptions and myths about the cost of a sustainable garment, what are the practical considerations for a greener wardrobe?

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Between the tempting bait of fast fashion price tags and the cost burden of a sustainable garment, a shopper is less likely to make the environmentally-friendly choice. Add to that, are things like accessibility and post-purchase care of a sustainable garment. “Wearing it would in itself be a chore and something that needs planning. It’s not quick and easy,” says marketing professional Shaista Vaishnav. Inspired by a talk by strategist and curator, sustainable fashion at IMG Reliance/Lakmè Fashion Week, Gautam Vazirani, Vaishnav has been trying to turn her wardrobe green.

A sustainable garment would necessarily cost more than a fast-fashion garment because it nurtures the supply chain—from using eco-sensitive materials to non-chemical dyes, from handcrafted elements to providing artisans with fair wages. Even storing waste fabric to be reused later adds to the cost of the garment. The only way fast-fashion companies can sell clothes at the rock-bottom rates they do is by cutting corners elsewhere. Mass-produced garments with cheap synthetic fabrics and harsh chemical dyes are placing an irreversible burden on the planet, and the lack of fair wages and decent working conditions for garment workers has become a chronic concern in manufacturing countries like India, China, Cambodia and Bangladesh.

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A Sustainable Philosophy
Perhaps because of these vast considerations, Deepshikha Khanna, head of apparel at Good Earth Sustain, is of the belief that choosing ‘sustainable’ is more about buying into the philosophy than it is about buying a product. When you understand why it costs so much—the time and effort that went into making that garment—then you are aware of its post-purchase care. Adds Khanna, “People commonly believed that sustainable fashion isn’t stylish, it is rustic. This has changed. Some of the softest sustainable fabrics like Khadi muslin are setting trends all over the globe today.”

Philosophy it may be, but Vazirani takes it a step further, suggesting that sustainable fashion—especially that which is made in India—is not merely fashion, it is akin to a work of art. He says, “If someone who is buying a hand-spun, hand-woven or hand-dyed/printed outfit were to understand the level of work that goes into making it by the artisans and their families, they would never be able to tighten their purse strings. It will also be difficult to discard the pieces or have the constant desire to keep buying new. You start looking at your wardrobe as a custodian of culture, heritage and sheer dexterity of human skills. You will accept the price, as it is not just an expensive tag or brand that you are paying for, but respect for someone’s labour.”

Perhaps for that reason, despite the range of fair-trade, organic garments abroad, Vaishnav finds the choices to be more in India. “I realised that I would rather spend ₹5,000 on a garment and have 12-15 good pieces, than buying five easily-spotted fast-fashion pieces for that price.” And that is what design consultant and stylist, Ekta Rajani suggests: “Excessive consumption can be replaced by considered consumption.”

Worthy Investment
Rajani’s Instagram posts are captioned with details of the number of times a garment has been worn. She says, “I like the term, ‘something old, something new’, where two pieces may be old, but one might be new.” Swapping clothes is also a great way to keep the wardrobe fresh. Mumbai witnessed its first-ever clothes swap on October 6 with 130 items swapped in six hours. Says Dhawal Mane, Global Fashion Exchange Ambassador for India, “Wardrobes are underutilized—swaps encourage extending the useful life of the apparel.”

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Aneeth Arora, founder of slow-fashion brand, péro, feels that offering two garments in one is another way to think about sustainability. The designer says, “With slow or upcycled fashion, the piece itself may appear to be expensive, but by investing in one good piece as opposed to multiple fast-fashion pieces, your overall expense is reduced.” She points out that a reversible jacket may itself be more expensive than a fast-fashion jacket, but the quality with which it is produced as well as the fact that it is reversible allows for longevity and multiple wears or looks.

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Rajani finds ways to think creatively about her wardrobe. “With old products, you need to be a little bit more imaginative. For instance, figuring out how to wear the same trouser in five different ways: with a skirt, shirt, tunic, sneakers or heels. The beauty of the times we live in is that there are no rules. If you like a look, you can figure out—by taking a couple of extra steps—how to achieve it with what you already have in your closet. Even if you buy trendy pieces, buy them of better quality, so they last.”

While the change needs to extend from demand to supply, it must also come from within. Arora finds that people are becoming more conscious about what they are buying and at what price. But, as Vazirani points out, “Sustainable fashion cannot be equated with price, it’s real value is the impact a consumer can have on human lives through their purchase.”

 

Many Indian Schools Post Photos of Kids on Public Accounts Without Parental Permission

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Published: The Swaddle, November 5, 2018.

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Cherubic kids with angelic smiles — feel-good photos like these make for free marketing fodder and glorious social media feeds. In India, educational organizations are not mandated to take permission — and most do not attempt to do so — before posting images of students on public platforms. In other parts of the world, it is considered best practice to do so; Webwise, the Irish Internet Safety Awareness Centre, outlines a policy that includes taking written consent from parents or carers before photographs of students are published anywhere. So, why aren’t Indian schools doing it?

“No one has ever asked to not have their child’s images posted,” says an administrator at a private Mumbai school that posts students’ photos on its public social media platforms and does not have an official consent process in place. “I don’t see any risks in posting on a school’s official Facebook or Instagram account or website. Names are never used,” says the administrator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “So, I don’t think there is any difference between a photo or seeing children out on a trip wearing a school uniform. All it does is say that the child is in a particular school. People seem proud to have their child identified with a school.” The administrator went on to compare the school’s posts to parents’ posts of children on their own accounts and YouTube channels.

The difference is, of course, that parents (in most cases) are children’s legal guardians. Yet most organizations share a similar reason for not seeking parental permission: parents, they say, are pleased to have their children showcased. Chhandam Nritya Bharati, a Kathak school in Mumbai and Kolkata, asks for permission from parents only if an image highlights a specific student, not while posting group photos and videos taken of the students during class or at a performance. Says Prachi Wagh, head of marketing for the school, about its public Facebook and Instagram accounts, “No individual names or pictures are highlighted or identified by us. Parents are on our social media lists and are aware of all social media activity.”

Hackberry Kids, a children’s educational organization, does ask for consent to post photos on their public Instagram and Facebook accounts — at the end of an email sent to the parents with other program information. “Most parents do not respond to the emails and seem to be fine with their kids’ images shared on social platforms. About 15 to 20% of the parents are not comfortable,” says co-founder, Anisha Parikh, of the school’s opt-out, rather than opt-in, policy. “In today’s digital world, parents are constantly posting images of their kids online. Each parent is entitled to decide if they want to share their child’s image and should be aware of the risks involved. Today, most children have their own digital footprint, whether we like it or not.”

Taking a cue from ‘sharenting’

Statistically, more than 80% of children are said to have an online presence by the age of two — long before they are school-aged. In a world of ‘sharenting’ the average parent shares almost 1,500 images of their child online before their fifth birthday.

Chef Shilarna Vaze unveils the life of her year-old daughter, Zanskar Stella Perrin on her public social media account. When asked about the concerns over risks she says, “People are getting paranoid about social media these days, but it’s insignificant when you consider the larger picture of the safety of children from offline predators in India.”

That may not be true. In 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that half of the 45 million images found on some pedophile image-sharing sites were innocent photos of children — kids on holiday, doing homework or opening Christmas presents — originally posted on social media and family blogs, according to an Australian Children’s eSafety Commissioner. “Within 10 days of being uploaded, the content had been viewed 1.7 million times and comments had been posted that explicitly sexualized the material,” said the Commissioner.

In the same Herald piece, cyber-safety expert Susan McLean said, “It does not matter how innocent the photo is, if your child has got what a predator is looking for, they will take that photo.” European police have begun posting Facebook warnings against the dangers of sharenting: The background of a child’s photo — the visible street signs, shopfronts and school logos — act as digital breadcrumbs that lead to an easily-accessible, real-world entry point into that child’s life for would-be predators.

Blogger Nidhi Mundhra blurs the face of her daughter, Aranya, on public platforms, but frequently posts about her freely on private social media accounts. She says, “I avoid putting details or clues about her school or our address. I haven’t objected to some classes putting her picture as they don’t have lots of followers.”

But privacy settings don’t guarantee control. Facebook and other related sites can share users’ personal data with advertisers — data that could include, say, the type of toy a child is playing with in a photo — while as of July 2015, Instagram’s policy retains full rights to all photos users post.

Whose decision is it?

Which leads to concerns about privacy, not just safety — concerns that relate to “identity theft (privacy risks), digital harvesting of kids’ images on predator sites (cyber-safety risks), sharing personal information about your child that should remain private (psychosocial risks), and revealing embarrassing information that may be misappropriated by others (psychological risks),” Kirsty Goodwin, researcher and author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World, wrote on her blog last year.

Today, children have a digital imprint when they are barely out of the womb. “As children’s-rights advocates, we believe that children should have a voice about what information is shared about them if possible,” says Stacey Steinberg, a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, in American multimedia news site, NPR.

Mundhra doesn’t believe her 6-year-old is ready to make decisions about platforms she doesn’t understand. She says, “As I don’t show her face on the public page, I don’t see why she would mind. On my private page, I don’t ask her, but she does seem annoyed when people tell her they saw her diving or cooking on Instagram.”

In the end, it may be neither schools nor parents that decide how freely children’s photos should be shared, but technology. Facial recognition technology is becoming advanced — Facebook already has this in place with the contentious DeepFace. In the future, a photo online may act as a digital password. Would you share your passwords as freely as you do — and allow others to — your child’s photos and identity? And which one should be protected the most?

Who Stole The Dupatta?

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, October 31, 2018.

Is the dupatta today relegated to being an emblem of archaic femininity and an ornamental accessory?

The dupatta, an iconic part of the Indian fashion lexicon, has lost its original raison d’être and has seen a transformation in urban India, to become a modern fashion accessory. The soft fabric worn flowing over the shoulders may have been often picturised romantically, as billowing gently—and occasionally coyly—in the breeze, but is, in reality, an exaggerated symbol of captive femininity and more importantly, female modesty. An integral part of the fabric of Indian society, conventionally, it forms a ‘ghoonghat’ or veil as a mark of respect in front of elders and at a place of worship, or protection from the unwanted male gaze.

The Creative Destruction

Connected to traditional garments of the Indian subcontinent like the lehenga-choli and the salwar kameez, the origin of the dupatta has been traced to the Indus Valley civilization. As the garment celebrates local embroidery and craftsmanship, for someone working in the handloom industry, the evolution of the dupatta is worrisome. Ritu Sethi, chairperson of the Crafts Revival Trust, addresses the change: “I delight in the fact that the original function of covering one’s head and bosom is no longer required, yet paradoxically, as a purist, I moan its passing.” She explains, “The lighter, airier weave of a dupatta is different from the rest of the suit length—reflecting in the elegance of its fall and drape, and its border and two-sided pallus. The yarn is produced specifically for the dupatta. What are the weavers shifting to if the demand wanes? Not to mention, a textile directory is vanishing before our eyes—a classic example of creative destruction.”

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Designer Payal Khandwala may not see it as a dead end though. “With the printed dupatta in synthetic fabrics replacing its hand-woven counterpart, the weaving community was already struggling. With more attention to hand-woven textiles and slow fashion in general—whether it is for scarves, garments or even home furnishings—we can certainly compensate for this shift and the subsequent loss of revenue from the traditional dupatta.”

And yet, Deepshikha Khanna, head of apparel at Good Earth Sustain shares that the traditional dupatta forms their highest selling category. She says, “Its use has definitely not dwindled. For as long as we continue to wear our traditional clothes the existence of the dupatta will remain relevant.” Tina Tahliani-Parikh, executive director of multi-brand boutique Ensemble, finds the dupatta remains an intrinsic part of the Indian outfit. She says, “It is a very feminine element, so I don’t see it getting replaced. Younger girls may wear a lehenga choli without the dupatta, but with the older, more mature customers, there is no question of the dupatta not being there. A Mughal-style Anarkali would be incomplete without the dupatta.

The Transformation

Khandwala, whose garments keep the dupatta optional, stresses on expressing individuality versus conforming. “The difference is we have the choice now to wear the dupatta simply for the romance of it or for its drama, rather than as a symbol of modesty.” She finds that the change may have taken place for multiple reasons—including the need to push boundaries creatively, to make the fashion landscape less homogenous, attention to comfort and practicality and a need to redefine what is handed down in the name of tradition.

The dupatta has most definitely evolved—from two-and-a-half to two-metre variants that flow on both shoulders; to the shorter stole which falls on one shoulder only, and to an even shorter square scarf that may be worn on the neck, on the head as a bandana, or tied to a handbag as a visual accessory. Lifestyle brand Nicobar, that looks to establish a modern Indian voice, has a range of diaphanous Chanderi overlays and jackets that alternatively dress up or bring traditional texture to a Western outfit. It may not be wrong to assume that in this case, the dupatta has been entirely eliminated and replaced by an overlay.

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Khanna points out that as style evolves so does the use of clothing. “A kurta which was once conservative is now worn over a swimsuit to a beach. Similarly, a dupatta, which is very versatile, is now a scarf, a sarong or a halter top. Globally, traditional weaves like Ikat or Mughal motifs are seen on dupattas that have been adopted as scarves and have become a part of Western ensembles. It is an iteration of the dupatta seen in a different context. While its early reasons for existence needed an update as the women wearing it have evolved, one finds that Indian women continue to stay attached to their traditions but adapt them to suit a more global lifestyle.”

Clothing, in the manner of art and music, reflects socio-cultural changes—which is marked in how we choose to present ourselves with the new-found freedom to express. In that sense, the dupatta’s transformation is a sign of the times, where women are no longer required to be ‘modest’. And as for its evolution, as Khandwala puts it, “To simply repackage old ideas makes fashion stagnant and predictable. It is just as important to suggest alternatives that define the future.” And the dupatta today remains, free-flowing, open to interpretation and boundless in its versatility as it floats away from patriarchal tradition.

Crafting Wearables: Fashion’s New Frontier

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Published: Biology, Technology, Fashion in The Voice of Fashion, October 24, 2018

It’s a time of grand intersections, and we could soon be wearing garments that were once alive in some form or could charge your mobile on the go

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Fashion’s new frontier is taking nature’s methodology and applying it to create new materials in an interdisciplinary approach, moving organically towards possibilities and dynamic solutions to problems that are rife in the fashion industry today, including waste, over-production and non-biodegradable materials.

The first manifestation of the collaboration between British designer Stella McCartney and California-based biotech company, BOLT Threads, using manmade vegan silk, Microsilk, was on display at The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ earlier this year. A similar garment is currently on view in, ‘Fashioned From Nature’, at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum until January 27, 2019.

“We live in a very special time in history, a rare time, a time when the confluence of four fields is giving designers access to tools we’ve never had access to before. These fields are computational design, allowing us to design complex forms with simple code; additive manufacturing, letting us produce parts by adding material rather than carving it out; materials engineering, which lets us design the behaviour of materials in high resolution; and synthetic biology, enabling us to design new biological functionality by editing DNA,” said American–Israeli architect, designer, and professor at the MIT Media Lab, Neri Oxman, at a TED 2015 event.

Traditionally, scientists would initiate innovations in materials, fabrics, or technology, after which, designers would step in. “This is not a very productive and effective way of collaboration—since the designer can help direct scientific innovation towards a desirable product,” says Jose Teunissen, the curator for the recently-concluded State of Fashion 2018 exhibit in Arnhem, Netherlands. Teunissen, who is also a Professor of Fashion Theory at the University of the Arts London and Dean of London College of Fashion, explains, “As scientists and designers start to work on the challenges with the aim to make the planet and our living better, they both work from their own expertise, while also learning to collaborate at an early stage, learning each other’s’ language and philosophy to understand that both disciplines have specific knowledge that can contribute to a solution.”

One of the interdisciplinary and collaborative projects showcased at the State of Fashion 2018, ‘The Future of Living Materials’, started from the observation that designers have begun working with new kinds of biomaterials, such as mycelium, fruit leather, or with bacteria that produce colour. “We believe that fashion is in dire need of more value-based critical thinking as well as critical (design) practices to explore, disrupt, redefine and transform the system. In addition, we believe that research through artistic and creative practices leads to new insights regarding urgent societal challenges,” says Dr Danielle Bruggeman, Professor of Fashion, at the ArtEZ University of the Arts, Arnhem.

Picking some innovative collaborations in the fashion industry:

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Pauline van Dongen’s wearable solar garments

Wearable Solar Garments
Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen has designed a range of garments as a part of the on-going collaborative research project ‘Wearable Solar’, which aims to create garments that can harness the sun’s energy. It is designed with transformable silhouettes, where side panels that contain the arrays of solar cells can be folded towards the body. A smartphone can be connected using the cable in one of the side pockets. In bright sunlight, it will be fully charged in roughly two hours. In a practical application, Van Dongen and sustainable clothing brand Blue LOOP Originals have also designed a garment that could provide tour guides with solar energy and shelter them from the wind and water.

Lab-grown Leather
Modern Meadow, a New York startup, has been experimenting with cultured animal cells and tissues to create an alternative biomaterial to traditional leather. This lab-grown leather could offer a more sustainable alternative and could eliminate defects generally seen in leather while controlling properties such as durability, elasticity, strength and water resistance. Meanwhile, Dutch product designer, Tjeerd Veenhoven, has invented AlgaeFabric, an H&M Global Change Award winner 2015, through which vegan leather can be made from algae, which by their nature form a sustainable source.

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Mycelium Materials
Dutch company Fungi Fashion combines 3D technology with mycelium (mushroom roots), producing custom-made clothes out of this new natural fibre that is sustainably grown in a lab. Once worn out, the garments can be simply buried in the ground to decompose. MycoTEX, as the fabric is known, by NEFFA, is 100 per cent biodegradable and is an H&M Global Change Award winner. Earlier this year, BOLT Threads released a material called Mylo, grown in New York by the biomaterials company Ecovative, made from mycelium cells dyed with English Breakfast tea, which forms the base material for leather bags.

Fabric from Food Waste
Innovative fabrics have been developed putting to use waste from the food industry. For example, discarded Amazonian freshwater fish skin becomes leather by Brazilian luxury brand, Osklen. Italian silk manufacturer, Canepa, has created the SAVEtheWATER® Kitotex® project in partnership with CNR-ISMAC Biella, where the polymer from the exoskeleton of shrimp forms the fibre. The Italian company, Orange Fiber, winner of the H&M Global Change Award 2016, has created sustainable fabrics from citrus juice by-products that would otherwise be thrown away—Salvatore Ferragamo is the first fashion house to employ Orange Fiber fabrics. UK-based eco-fashion designers VIN + OMI have been focusing on eco-processes and textile development since 2004, including a plant-based textile ‘leather’ made from chestnuts.

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Digital Fabrication and 3D
Japanese designer Yuima Nakazato’s ‘Freedom’ collection created a system by using digital fabrication that allows various materials—like cotton, wool, and nylon—to be combined freely, without the use of needles and threads. Unlike the usual method of making sewn clothes, the 3D Unit Constructed Textile can be adjusted to the size and shape of a garment to create a precise fit to the wearer’s figure.

Meanwhile, a dress from avant-garde Dutch designer, Iris van Herpen’s Spring 2018 haute couture collection, ‘Ludi Naturae’, is made from innovative material ‘foliage’, the result of a collaboration with the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in which leaf-like patterns are 3D printed as thin as 0.8 mm. Then tulle is laid into the 3D printer to print directly onto the fabric, creating exceptional softness.

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The Future Footwear Foundation develops alternative ways of footwear that are sustainable for the environment and body. Shoes usually do not reflect the natural shape of your feet. 3D-printed and made-to-measure footwear—inspired by indigenous handcrafted footwear like the Kolhapuri chappal—are slated to be out in the market by the end of this year, commercialised by Vivobarefoot, London, U.K.

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Interactive Clothing
Canadian designer, Ying Gao, focuses on the relationship between the wearer and the garment, as well as the relationship with one’s environment, in ‘Possible Tomorrows’. A design was developed from a series of algorithms associated with the realm of pattern recognition. Her interactive dresses respond to the touch of others; the material is only activated in the presence of strangers whose fingerprints are not recognised by the material—latently addressing notions of privacy and individualism.

 

Fashion Retail: Does Sustainability Matter?

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Published: The Voice of Fashion, October 18, 2018

Is sustainable retail an oxymoron? We speak to five retailers to see how they weigh in.

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As the buzz around sustainable fashion grows, how many conversations involve that of the retailer? One of the key elements of the sustainable fashion conversation is to reduce the economy of excess and to encourage people to buy less. And therein lies the dichotomy—can a person who is necessarily driven by the bottom line, be motivated to make these choices?

Finding a Sustainable Retailer

And therefore, can there be a sustainable retailer or is it an oxymoron? Maithili Ahluwalia, founder of multi-brand fashion boutique in Mumbai, Bungalow Eight, points out that the day you are a retailer, your model is built around unsustainability because your basic premise is to sell as much as you can—whether it is season-less or handloom products. She says, “It is hard to say that you are sustainable unless you control the entire process from yarn to finished product. You could claim consciousness or partial sustainability but perhaps, ‘selling sustainable luxury’ is only valid when you have an in-built anti-consumerist ethic, control the entire supply chain and plough back resources into the ecosystem in a circular economy.”

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Bhagyashree Patwardhan, founder and creative director of slow-fashion boutique, Paper Boat Collective, Goa, which veers towards ‘natural’ over ‘sustainable’, believes that “sustainability’ and ‘organic’ are big words and as much as one tries, a hundred percent adherence to it as a retailer is difficult.”

Is there a point then to the dialogue on retail and sustainability? Simran Lal, co-founder of pan-India lifestyle brand Nicobar (and CEO of Good Earth), says, “We don’t claim to be sustainable because it is open to interpretation and there are so many parameters to it. We believe we are a conscious and mindful brand vis-a-vis a sustainable brand. We care about what, how and why we do things and are constantly reflecting on our actions.” And what about an anti-consumerist ethic? Lal says, “Although it does seem like a contradiction, at Nicobar, we have always wanted to encourage thoughtful consumption. Buy less, pay the right amount for the product so that the entire value chain is well taken care of—and thus the quality is superior, waste is less and that is, in my opinion, a conscious way of creating, retailing and consuming.”

Steps Taken

What is it that a conscious retailer can do? Pick the right kind of goods to stock, for one. Patwardhan states that Paper Boat Collective offers handmade products in natural materials, working with small designers, suppliers and manufacturers, who in turn work with smaller craftspeople or use resources that are sustainable. “This allows us a way to build a backend integrated towards sustainable and fair-trade practices.”

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Tina Tahiliani-Parikh, executive director, multi-brand boutique, Ensemble (Mumbai and Delhi) drives initiatives that are embedded in craft—“It is very important that we keep our craft and handloom movements alive in this country. We should not go the way of Japan, where the Kimono is relegated to a ceremonial garment. Ensemble is an active supporter of the handloom sari; and we, right from the start, support a lot of young designers whose raison d’etre is sustainable fashion.”

Toile, Paper Boat Collective and Nicobar have taken it a step further into elements like decor, packaging and materials, respectively. Farheen B Rahman, co-founder of eco-fashion store, Toile (Mumbai), says they use coir for their walls and have upcycled an old Singer machine as their billing counter; while Patwardhan uses recyclable packaging materials, less paper, natural cleaning products, hardly any plastic and also aims to be zero-waste.

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At Nicobar, Lal lists initiatives like offering timeless garments in organic cotton, going plastic-bottle free, reusing packing cartons multiple times and paperless invoicing. She says, “Through our collaborative cafe, NicoCaara, we have created a menu with fresh, chemical-free produce grown at the farm of our partners, Caara, or by supporting local artisanal suppliers who in turn, believe in practising and supporting sustainable businesses.”

The Challenges

Perhaps the strongest hit a committed retailer may take is on the bottom line. Rahman admits that the turnover is very different compared to fast fashion. She says, “It is a slow process. We have refused designers who differed in ideology even though their designs were good and saleable, and those who projected themselves as sustainable but were not.”

Lal is struggling with finding sustainable packaging materials that are “affordable and consistent for delicate and fragile products to be shipped.” She says, “We are currently experimenting with different types, and are willing to take a hit on our margins to make packaging more sustainable.”

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Parikh states that there has been only a marginal increase in consumer awareness towards sustainable fashion. She says, “It is a conversation. A first-time shopper may not buy into the sustainable philosophy immediately. But once they acquire a couple of garments and experience the longevity of the garment, or they are in the ecosystem, they begin to change their minds. It is a very gradual process.”

Creativity and Effort

A little creative effort goes a long way. Celebrating season-less attire, limited production with a curated and thoughtful supply chain, use of non-toxic and biodegradable materials, elimination of waste and being conscious of the carbon footprint. Maybe an upcycling or recycling station at the retail front.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of the American apparel and outdoor gear label Patagonia, reminds his customers in New-York-based publication, The Usual: “Think twice before you buy a product from us. Do you really need it or are you just bored and want to buy something?”

As is the case with a sustainable supply chain, this requires a willingness on the part of the retailer to buy into the philosophy, the knowledge that this is critical to our future and the acceptance that there will be, at least initially, a monetary fallback. And if the consumer isn’t demanding it, perhaps the onus lies on the retailer to open up a fresh dialogue to create a conscious consumer and a responsive demand.

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.”