Runway to green: Sustainable fashion in India

We might be small compared to the global sustainable fashion industry, but we are steadily making headway. In February 2017, India won ‘Best Country Award’ for its first exhibit at the International Fashion Showcase of London Fashion Week, curated by Gautam Vazirani of IMG Reliance. Early this year, Ruchika Sachdeva of Bodice picked up the International Woolmark Prize (which supports ethical fashion and awards the best global talent working with Merino wool). And at the recent Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW), the focus of Sustainable Fashion Day was #NorthEastMojo, a collaboration with the United Nations to boost the sustainable economy of the Northeast. “We’ve also announced British Council’s global Crafting Futures programme that will explore new systems for the north-eastern states, which, incidentally, represents more than 50% of our country’s handlooms,” says Vazirani. To get a better picture, Weekend speaks to the fashion curator, along with Sachdeva and Rajesh Pratap Singh — who presented a collection with Tencel at LFW, in colours of sorbet pinks, reds and pale blues juxtaposed with browns and whites — on where the market is heading.

Gautam Vazirani, fashion curator at IMG Reliance

Fashion is no longer just about trends and innovative design, it is also a means to encourage dialogue on sustainable choices. Vazirani, who has been curating Lakmé Fashion Week’s Handloom Day for 13 editions, says its evolution into Sustainable Fashion Day in the last two editions is a sign of the times. “The purpose of Textile Day was to promote ethical, artisanal fashion, but the value behind these principles is sustainability. This is the global conversation now, and we’re helping designers understand its value,” he says.


The recent fashion week saw designer-weaver collaborations — like Amit and Richard X Kaladhera — labels/designers Hemang Agrawal, Maku and Pankaja looking to Benaras, West Bengal and Odisha, and the popular #NorthEastMojo runway, with six Northeast designers showcasing their collections. “As a country with one of the world’s largest handmade creative economies — artisans involved in creating textiles and handicrafts — I’m seeing an upswing in people leveraging it. But even more positively, this is happening with an evolved sense of aesthetics, with labels creating contemporary collections with global appeal,” says Vazirani.

Runway to green: Sustainable fashion in India

  • Sustainable fabrics are not always easy to make. Loin loom — woven on a backstrap loom – for instance, is a time-consuming process, and has its limitations: maximum 54 inches length and 20 inches wide, a single piece takes about five days to weave. A jacket will require at least three pieces. Which is why it will be retailed for about Rs 25,000. Loin loom is only for a niche market at present. But we could mix it with other sustainable fabrics and make it more affordable. The thing is that people should look beyond fast fashion and “now”. Don’t buy garments that you can wear only once or twice. You should be able to pass it on to another generation!
  • — Arunachal Pradesh designer Jenjum Gadi presented his clothing line with Nagaland’s Exotic Echo Society at Lakme Fashion Week as part of the #NorthEastMojo initiative

Trickle-down effect

But is sustainability trickling down to the masses? Vazirani feels it is, albeit slowly. And that’s where fashion weeks like LFW (with a social media reach of over 90 million consumers) is becoming great platforms to reach out to the consumer, especially millennials. “It is important to inform them about what’s out there — like a beautiful collection created by Nagaland’s loin loom artisans, or an innovative dabu line by Delhi label Poochki and Rajasthani artisan Bheru Lal Chippa. Our job is to create a mindset change, to show the potential of what is possible, and then let it trickle down and have people interpret it in their own ways.”

The fact that mass brands is picking up the trend, he says, is proof that sustainability is becoming mainstream. Reliance Trends has launched Swadesh, their in-house brand, while Fabindia has a big marketing campaign around handloom and western wear. Many labels like Mumbai-based Runaway Bicycle and Metaphor Racha from Bengaluru are also offering their clothes at affordable prices. “We are working with Raymond for a khadi menswear line that will have high street pricing. And a collaboration with GoCoop, the artisanal platform, has enabled the launch of The Good Loom, an affordable, sustainable label.”

Going forward, Vazirani believes sustainability must also look beyond handloom. “It has to be a complete strategy for the industry. No one’s talking about the people working with, say, polyester. But if they are recycling, using the right kinds of dyes, sourcing and selling in a mindful way, and with a good carbon footprint, then they can be sustainable, too,” he concludes.

Runway to green: Sustainable fashion in India

Ruchika Sachdeva, designer and winner of the International Woolmark Prize

What is green clothing? Like the meaning of life, sustainability often means different things to different people. Which is why we went to Sachdeva, who is cautious about flinging it around or using it as a marketing tool. The designer, who won the 2017-18 International Woolmark Prize (Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East regional), has always upcycled, right from when she was at the London College of Fashion, converting vintage clothes into everyday wear. For her label, Bodice, she has made reversible clothing, to extend its wear, and dabbled with handloom and natural dyes.

As a part of the Woolmark endeavour, she was mentored for a year by a sustainability expert to truly understand what the fashion industry is doing to the world. Her garments today have an eco antimicrobial coating so they can be used several times before washing, and she swears by wool’s sustainable, breathable, sweat-wicking, antimicrobial qualities. Tracking what the rest of the world is doing, she talks of Nike’s endeavours to recycle plastic bottles into shoes and fitness clothes, Freitag that recycles old truck tarps into bags, and Stella McCartney’s autumn-winter 2017 campaign shot on landfills. “We’ll soon be paying a landfill tax,” she says. The definition of sustainable clothing? Responsible buying with awareness and education.

Runway to green: Sustainable fashion in India

Read the labels

“Make that effort to buy a little bit less from the mall and a little bit more from smaller brands, because it’s difficult to trace who is making high-street brands and how responsibly they’ve been made,” she says. There are two big areas that she feels people should look at when they shop: environmental impact and social impact. “Biodegradability is the most important. So if something can decompose, it’s not so bad. Anything that has polyester, polyamide, plastic, PU — look for the P — is non-biodegradable, and avoidable. What most people identify as synthetic materials are non-biodegradable,” she says.

Then there’s the use of water, which is difficult for customers to understand. “So the second thing we can do is buy from local labels, whether it’s Dastkar or local fairs. Organic is better because it doesn’t pollute groundwater, but the impact of this is still being understood. More than anything, buy consciously,” she says.

Designers play a role in educating customers, just as dieticians did for food labelling, and even a sustainability day will open people’s eyes to understanding where clothes come from and where they go when we throw them in the bin. “Anything that causes more awareness is great, even if it’s just a trend or a marketing tool.”

Runway to green: Sustainable fashion in India

Rajesh Pratap Singh, designer

He brings to mind sharp tailoring and crisp construction. Not always the calling cards you associate with sustainable fashion. But natural, biodegradable, ethical and environment-conscious textiles and manufacturing processes are ‘necessities’ that fuel Singh’s fashion commitments. Excerpts from an interview with the Delhi-based designer who has reimagined khadi, reworked denims with indigo, and revisited ikat in wool:

What got you interested in Tencel?

I have been thinking and talking sustainability for some time. So when Tencel got in touch with me, I was excited. It comes from Austria-based Lenzing Group that’s famous for cellulose fibres. The manufacturing process is sustainable, it lends itself to desirable colours and silhouettes, and, above all, it can be mass produced.

The sustainability fashion dialogue is restricted to a few circles.

Our understanding of sustainability is limited because we are still experimenting and learning. This is not just in fashion, it prevails in other industries as well. As designers, we can follow slow fashion cycles, opt for natural fibres and dyes, and commit ourselves to ethically right manufacturing processes. But what’s needed are ways for commercial mass production. There has to be an industrial solution that can take sustainability beyond the class to the mass.

Runway to green: Sustainable fashion in India

Do you think the mainstream consumer is ready for fashion with a conscience?

Awareness is getting better, though we have a long way to go. But I can see a scenario where people will drive change keeping in mind wider environmental concerns, thereby forcing industries to switch to sustainable solutions and ethical manufacturing processes.

What are you currently working on?

Right now, we are working on handloom and experimenting with different kinds of yarns. People talk about technology in the handloom sector. To me, handloom by itself is cutting-edge technology. Those who work with handloom can appreciate its uniqueness and understand that certain things can be done only with it.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2020 2:29:27 AM |

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